Heaven on Earth

Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth
They say in heaven, love comes first
We’ll make heaven a place on earth
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.


I am grateful to Bret Neely in the blog A Plain Account for reminding me of Belinda Carlisle and her song, a veritable blast from the past for all us 80’s boppers. Belinda Carlisle spoke about the song as a song of hope that might encourage each of us to make our lives a little piece of heaven on earth.

I am today, by which I mean that I have not always been, a card-carrying member of the Tom Wright fan club. Tom Wright is an Anglican bishop and our Tradition’s foremost biblical scholar -more commonly known in his writing as N.T. Wright.  

I am not uncritical of some of his more socially conservative opinions, but in the area of biblical scholarship I find him inspiring. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright tells us that:

Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. 

Many Christians today think that resurrection means being raised to spiritual life after death. According to this view resurrection is a triumph of love over death. We don’t need to worry too much about what did or did not happen at the resurrection of Jesus – empty tomb and all that – because resurrection is really an internal spiritual experience that means that all of us will go to heaven to live with God after we die. This is the theology of pie in the sky when you die. This may be a cleaver example of alliteration where each succeeding word repeats the sound of the proceeding one, but it is truly, terrible theology.

In fact, this is not a Christian theology at all because it severs resurrection hope from its context in God’s age-long promise.  Throughout the Old Testament God continually affirms his promise of a final resurrection of creation in a new heaven and a new earth at the end of time. It’s only within the continuity of this promise of final fulfilment of creation itself, that the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Day makes any sense. Jesus’ resurrection is not a generalizable spiritual event. It’s a next step in the unfolding of God’s purposes, made plain in the promise of total renewal of the creation in a new heaven and new earth.

On Easter day I spoke about living between two bookends. Our earthly life unfolds between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of in a new heaven and new earth. Tom Wright speaks of the resurrection of Jesus as a foretaste of the future brought into real time as God’s promise of the kind of future we should anticipate in the present.

This first point is this. There is the important distinction between simply looking forward to a future fulfilment of the promise and anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Anticipating the future promise as if it is already in the process of being fulfilled in the present. Anticipation is all!

Tom Wright contends that the first Christians deliberately used the Jewish concept of resurrection –a belief they shared with many other Jews, in particular the Pharisees.  Here is the second point to note. For Pharisee Jews and the followers of Jesus, resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-long promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death. This is what is meant by a new heaven and a new earth. Which brings me to the 21st chapter of the Revelation to John, the epistle appointed for Easter V.

Resurrection did not mean spiritual life after death, but the fulfillment of God’s age-old promise of a return to a new physical life, that comes after the phase of life after death

In the N.T. we have possibly four Johns. There is John the beloved disciple, John the Evangelist, the gospel writer who must have been closely connected to John the beloved of Jesus, John the Elder who is the author of the letters of 1st and 2nd , a early second-century leader of the community established by John the Evangelist, and John of Patmos or John the Divine, the recipient of a powerful dream of the end time, which he wrote down in the book of Revelation.

Revelation is a tricky book to interpret and most Episcopal preachers stay as far away from it as we can for fear of being tarred by the wilder excesses of literalist interpretations that circulate in Pentecostal and fundamentalist versions of Christianity. Yet, Revelation is part of the apocalyptic (end time) literary genre that is woven-throughout the Old Testament and on into the New; a genre couched in dream imagery and the language of mystical symbolism.

The main thing to note in Revelation 21 is that the heavenly new Jerusalem, bedecked as a bride for her wedding day is not ascending into heaven, but is coming down from heaven to establish a new order in this world. In the promise that there will come a time when there is no more mourning and crying , a time when pain will end, God proclaims not only that he is making all things new, but that the home of God is not in heaven but down here among mortals, with us, in real time.

Between the resurrection of Jesus and the final completion we live in the here and now of eternal life. That does not mean we will live forever and never die. It means that the purpose of our earthly lives is eternal. Eternal life – whatever it might mean after physical death – is in this life a purpose and energy not subject to the limitation of time.

Eternal life is to live in anticipation of the resurrection as something that is already taking place and not simply something that happened to Jesus alone, or is still to come.

On Sunday morning we will baptize a new baby girl named Amaya.  Amaya will be baptized into eternal life. By this I don’t mean her soul will be saved. I believe that in the beauty of her birth, her soul is already God’s. No, though baptism Amaya will be made a member of the holy people of God, a member of Christ’s body on earth, a servant of heaven in this world. Amaya will be made a Christian, and to be a Christian is to be a member of the holy people of God in this world.

Remember Tertullian’s cry: one Christian is no Christian. You can be a spiritual person and you can even perhaps have a generalized spiritual experience of the triumph of love over death, but neither of these makes you a Christian.

Being a Christian is about belonging, before believing. It’s about being part of a grand project if working tirelessly for the healing of the world, of being partners with God in putting the world to rights. It is living a life bracketed between the bookends of Jesus resurrection and the resurrection of the world. A living in anticipation of resurrection as already taking effect.

A life of anticipation that is the hallmark of bringing about the new heaven on earth – in real time!

In the resurrection God raised Jesus to new life after life after death as the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven (Tom Wright). Or as Belinda Carlisle sings it: Ooh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Ooh, heaven is a place on earth. They say in heaven, love comes first. We’ll make heaven a place on earth, Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

It might come as a surprise to many of us to discover N.T. Wright and Belinda Carlisle in the same company – ha!

Of Shepherds and Mothers

I find myself reflecting on two parts of Jesus’ metaphor I am the Good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is – not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

They hear my voice

In John 10, Jesus plays with the metaphors of sheep, shepherd, wolves, hirelings, and sheep pens to explore images of the relationship between God and humanity. Jesus is the true shepherd as contrasted with the hired hand; he is the defender of the sheep against the ravaging wolf; he lies down on the ground to become the gate opening of the sheep pen – through or over which the sheep tramp into the safety of the pen.

Throughout Jesus’ word play of rapidly shifting metaphors there runs, like a continuous heartbeat, the familiar sound of his voice. We hear his voice, not with our ears but in our bodies, in the yearning of our hearts. To borrow from T.S. Elliot for a moment -his is the sound of a voice … not known, because not looked for -but heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea. (Little Gidding)

In 2019, the good shepherd imagery of Jesus in John’s Gospel occurs on the second Sunday in May, otherwise known as Mother’s Day. Whether it’s by design or not, it’s an interesting coincidence that emboldens me to reframe Jesus’ metaphor the good shepherd.

Jesus says I am the good mother; my children hear my voice; I know them and they trust me. I give them eternal life – a life that cannot be measured or restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

We hear Jesus’ voice -the voice heard, and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory. For the divine voice first enters our lives through that particular experience with our mothers. Nurture echoes nature. The human bond of mother and child is an echo of the bond between God and humanity. Jesus says I am the good mother, my children hear my voice, I know them, and they trust me.

In John’s story of Jesus, there is no distinction between Jesus and God the Creator; in each, the other finds its own reflection. God the good shepherd enters at first into our human experience as God the good mother. We learn to trust God the good shepherd; the one who calls us each by name, who protects us from danger,  because God has first loved us like a mother with a quality of unconditionality that is breathtaking to contemplate.

Imagine being loved because you are already good-enough? The problem for many of us is not that this reality is not true, but we dare not risk seeing ourselves as God the good mother made us to be. In life we come full circle – God the good shepherd enters our lives as God the good mother, eventually re-emerging at later stages of life into our awareness as God the good shepherd.

Jesus is a voice heard and yet not heard, remembered, and yet not looked for but viscerally felt; a voice we trust because it resonates through the finely tuned strings of our memory.

Donald Winnicott, the renowned 20th-century British pediatrician and psychoanalyst coined the phrase the good-enough mother. Winnicott was a formative influence on my own evolution as a psychotherapist and priest. My own analyst had been analysed by Winnicott himself and he was powerfully present as my analyst and I worked to find the good-enoughness in my experience of life. He was for me in a very real sense a good-enough mother.

By good-enough, Winnicott meant that mothers did not need to be perfect. The mother infant relationship, though vulnerable to mishap is also robust and able to withstand a variety of imperfect conditions. That mothers needed to be good-enough and not perfect, is a reminder for us all that the quest for the perfect in this arena of life is certainly the enemy of the good.

The essence of a good-enough experience of mothering lies in our experience of love that is consistent and unconditional. Some of us may find it difficult to locate the experience of consistent unconditional love within our experience of our biological or adoptive mothers – mothers can’t be perfect. Yet, if we didn’t find the memory of good-enough-ness in our early experience with our mothers, maybe we found it with them at a later stage of life? Countless others have experienced the qualities of good-enough-ness in a devoted teacher or mentor, a grandmother or grandfather, in the compensating love of an aunt or uncle who truly saw us and got us.

Yet an early experience of a disinterested or unavailable mother will leave its mark.  An early experience of the promise of love being restricted by conditions – I will love you only if — is not an uncommon experience. Yet, there are very few people who cannot locate an experience of unconditional love somewhere in their formation as a person.

Jesus says I am the good-enough mother who has no choice; for I cannot -not – love my children.

And I give them eternal life

Jesus says I am the good mother, and I give my children Eternal Life, that is, life that cannot be restricted by the limitations of time.

We live in a period of time between two bookends: the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of the resurrection of the world at the end of time. Because eternal life cannot be restricted by the limitations of time, between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of a new world we live in eternal life in real time, here and now. Our experience of life is eternal in the sense that our hopes, dreams and tireless collaboration with God have a lasting effect far beyond our time-bound life span. If God is our good mother, then our dream is to work for the building of a society configured by the priorities revealed in the experience of mothering and being mothered. Putting the world to rights begins here and now with you and me.

As a society, we frequently fail the women and men who are responsible for mothering through our failure to promote social and economic policies supportive of family life and child development. In a country that eulogizes mother and apple pie, the US ranks very low down on the scale of nations where public policy concretely supports family life and child development. A society configured by the divine mothering template will take care to ensure maternal and paternal paid leave, supported child care through public pre-school and free kindergarten education. The paradox at the heart of American society concerns the disproportion between our concerns for the unborn and social neglect of the born.

Human mothering and the experience of being mother only needs to be good-enough not perfect.  For some of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to reaffirm the forgiveness of heart that soothes the discordant strings of our early memory. For most of us, Mother’s Day will be an opportunity to express feelings of gratitude for the love our mothers gave us. Whichever maybe the case, for each one of us God as the good mother encourages us to be good-enough mothers to those who trust us to love and care for them. Through the template of motherly love, both in our individual families and in the whole community of wider society, may we be led to the reality of the love with which God loves us.

I am the good shepherd. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life  – a life that is not restricted by the limitations imposed by time.

Great Expectations

A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Easter 3

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

So, what now? This is the Third Sunday of Easter—day 15 of a 50-day season–and this is the question that should confront us. How are we different from who we were before the lights came on at the Easter Vigil, before the Alleluias returned from their Lenten exile, before we had digested that yummy Easter brunch?

We are people of the Resurrection, Alleluia Alleluia!

What does that mean?

The first people to encounter the Risen Christ changed the world. They did it because they themselves were deeply affected by the Resurrection, and they shared that experience by creating a magnetic community and by showing others that the Way of Jesus—the Way of Love—was the way of abundant life, healing and reconciliation. The Good News of Jesus Christ turned the known world on its head.

What does that mean now?

How are we changed by Easter today? Because of course we should be changed. The Good News that God has done a new thing in the Resurrection, that death does not have the last word, should transform how we see God, one another and the world around us. And yet Easter Sunday doesn’t seem to have changed us at all—we just—move on. Is it that we expect too much of Easter? As my spirit animal Anne Lamott says, expectations are resentments under construction. And certainly this year, as we awakened on Easter morning to news of suicide bombers in Sri Lanka; as we heard last week of a new synagogue shooting and of the rise of anti-Semitism and hate crimes when we had hoped that our society was moving beyond that; as we hear this week of still another shooting at still another university, all of this collides with what we expect to be Easter joy—it seems to give the lie to the resounding affirmation of the triumph of love over death and evil. We look for signs of Easter, and it seems all too elusive. If Easter has changed us and the world, we want evidence. And not seeing it, we let the lilies wilt, the Lenten discipline lapse forgotten, and we get back to the routine of coping from day to day.  We move on. Like Peter, we go back to work. We go fishing.

So the safer alternative to high Easter expectation is to expect nothing. But if we expect to remain unchanged by the empty tomb, that is an expectation that will probably be met.

Do we expect too much of Easter? Or too little?

Perhaps we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking what we expect of Easter we should be asking what Easter expects of us.

Perhaps, when we’ve been thinking of Easter joy, we’ve really deep-down been thinking of Easter happiness—that gorgeous chill-bumpy feeling that comes with the scent of the lilies and the resounding organ—so lovely to sing the well-loved hymns, surrounded by family and community. But as we often hear, happiness is not the same as joy. Joy is more mysterious–deeper than happiness–it gracefully accompanies real-world suffering and difficulty. We find joy when we know that we are upheld in prayer when we grieve. We find joy when we are loved and supported when we meet a tough challenge. We find joy when we find perspective—when we can hold our successes and our failures equally lightly because we know that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do or what we have or how we look.

The difference between Easter happiness and Easter joy?

Easter joy hasn’t forgotten the Cross.

Consider Saul and Peter. Their two stories, each rich with nuance in its own right, actually converse with one another. They offer us a compelling invitation as People of the Resurrection—an invitation to see this season in a potentially more fruitful and life-giving light.

So we see Saul, who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of God; Saul who held the coats of the people who stoned the deacon and first martyr Stephen to death. This same Saul will become a tireless, if irascible, proclaimer of the Good News throughout the Mediterranean world. And Peter, devoted but impetuous follower of Jesus who denied his Lord three times—Peter will become the first bishop of the Church. We see two men, one a respected Jewish official of the tribe of Benjamin and Roman citizen, and the other the son of a Galilean fisherman. The two could not have been from more divergent backgrounds and life experiences. Yet between the two of them, and the communities they gathered around them, they profoundly and irrevocably transformed the Jewish and Gentile religious landscape within a few decades of Jesus’ Resurrection and Ascension.

Why? Because of Easter.  But not on Easter morning. On Easter morning Peter was in hiding until the women brought him the news of the Resurrection. On Easter morning Saul was just waking up from his regular weekly Sabbath observance, oblivious to the turn his life was about to take. The lives of Saul and Peter converged, not on Easter morning, but later, in their encounters with the Risen Christ.

We’ve heard the stories: Saul, plunged into blindness on the Damascus Road—brought face to face with Christ and with his own violent past. Peter, plunged into the water of the Sea of Galilee at the sight of his teacher, and suddenly confronted by the shame of his earlier threefold denial: “Peter, do you love me? Do you love me? Do you?”

Saul, blinded. Peter, blindsided. Face to face with guilt and shame. An encounter with the Risen Christ is not always a journey to the Comfort Zone. And yet.

Saul, raised up, led by the hand into the care of community. Forgiven, healed, renewed. A new life, a new name, a new mission.  Peter, fed, forgiven, and given charge of a flock: “Feed my sheep.”

Grace upon grace offered to two flawed men who would turn the world upside down. Grace upon grace received by them, now knowing that they were truly known; nothing left to hide. There is a freedom in that; a freedom to embark on a new path, equipped with humility, purpose, and the unconquerable love of an Easter Christ.

What does that mean, now?

The stories of Paul and Peter offer us an invitation to see Easter in a new light; not as a single bright moment in time, but as an ongoing process that transcends time and history and that encompasses both light and shadow. It’s important to know that the Risen Christ came to Saul and Peter—and confronted them—in the days and months after the Resurrection. In other words, Easter is never really over. It continually challenges us to see the world through Easter eyes that see life-giving potential in even the most barren and difficult places. Especially in those places. Paul and Peter had to confront the barren places in their own lives before moving forward—before accepting the challenges that Jesus presented. They had to understand that to be a person of the Resurrection is to carry a small part of the Cross within you—to be able to see the world and all of its pain with at least a measure of the compassion and forgiveness with which God sees us. And when we can do that , we, like Paul and Peter, are freed to offer ourselves to God knowing that we are fully known.  But also like Paul and Peter, we are not promised a smooth path. We are equipped, though, with courage to live hopefully, creatively, compassionately, and, yes, joyfully for the healing of the world.

So, what now? The tomb is long empty, the lilies are fading, and the jellybeans are getting a little stale. But our Easter life as People of the Resurrection is just getting started—Alleluia!

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.

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