March 25, 2018 Maundy Thursday The Rev. Barbara Elliott
Earlier this year my cell phone startled me with a siren sound I had never heard before. Then a message appeared: “Incoming ballistic missiles to Hawaii. This is not a test.” Yes, I was in Hawaii, and this message was sent to me and all the others who were on the islands. We were being warned that nuclear warheads were in the air toward us. Unexpected news. Stunning information. Not what we planned to learn or happen that day in January.
What would you do if you received message essentially telling you that very soon you would be dead and there is nothing you can do about it? How would you respond? I recall practicing going under my desk in grade school in preparation for incoming bombs…Now the schools prepare for active shooters, but we don’t talk about or prepare for nuclear missiles any more.
What would you do? When the message arrived, I was out for a walk in the woods, about 20 minutes from any shelter. I remember thinking, “Okay, now I know how my life will end,” and “Soon I will see ‘the other side…’”. Then I decided to text my children and tell them I love them…
I tell this story now because that is the only time so far, in my life, that I have fully been in the spot Jesus was in on this day 2000 years ago: as we read and know, Jesus knew what lay ahead for him over the next three days, that he would die and leave his loved ones behind. The story we read in the Gospel tonight describes how Jesus answered the question ‘What would you do in these circumstances?’
The Disciples didn’t know what was coming in the next days as they sat together celebrating the Last Supper…but Jesus did know… and was actively trying to transition his relationships with the Disciples. This evening was a day of intimacy, with dear friends sharing the food of a ritual Passover meal. And it was a day of betrayal—one of those dear friends was about to reveal Jesus’ identity to those who would kill him. Jesus knew what was coming. Jesus knew he needed to pass his mantel to the Disciples—now.
There are several steps in Jesus’ passing his mantle. In today’s Gospel we read that Jesus condensed his message into three actions that evening: washing the Disciples’ feet, sharing the meal of bread and wine, and commanding the Disciples to love one another as he loved them. That is what Maundy Thursday is about…the essentials of Jesus’ teachings. What Jesus needed to communicate, knowing that he would be dead the next day.
Jesus’ first lesson came through his washing their feet. We will wash one-another’s feet tonight, as Jesus washed his Disciple’s feet that evening. This process conveys an important lesson for each of us, as it did to the Disciples. Jesus was teaching the Disciples how it is our job to serve others—and to receive—with humility. As we read, Peter tried to refuse Jesus’ gift of washing his feet. Being able to receive God’s grace is an essential part of following Jesus. For most of us, it is hard to receive with humility and grace. What gifts am I—are we—too proud to receive? As we have often heard, it is blessed to give...and to receive.
The second lesson Jesus demonstrated that evening was the importance of meeting together at the Table, to share a meal of bread and wine. At Jesus’ Table that evening, all were welcome—just as they are here at St. Paul’s. His table that night included those who loved him, those who would betray him, those who were worried about their futures, those who had doubts, and those who didn’t have a clue what was unfolding. A lot like us… Part of Jesus’ teaching that evening demonstrated for the Disciples how to sustain the community: come to the Table together and always eat bread and drink the wine “in the remembrance of me.” All are beloved by God and welcome at the Table.
The third lesson Jesus offered that night came in the form of the New Commandment. He told the Disciples they were to love one another, as he loved them. The second part of this comment is powerful: because of Jesus’ love for us, we have the example of how to love one another. Jesus’s actions exemplified how we are to live in relationship with one another, and that human relationships are sacred.
And so here we are on Maundy Thursday. Jesus’ teachings are especially poignant: we recall and relive his example tonight. We honor his teachings from his last hours with his Disciples. We wash one another’s feet. We share communion. We commit to loving one another, as Jesus loved us. We do this today, and commit to following these teachings every day, despite the inhumanity and injustice that Jesus knew were coming to him—and that we know continue in the world around us. We do this knowing through Jesus’ example, that God is always with us. AMEN
March 25, 2018 The Rev. Barbara Elliott
Palm Sunday. We are beginning Passion Week together today, with the increasing light that comes with early Spring…and with the memory of the events that Jesus encountered in Mark’s Gospel reading. Mark describes the emotional peaks and valleys that Jesus experienced that week, with his joyous entry into Jerusalem, followed by his experience of the mind-boggling inhumanity humans can create for each other.
Jesus faced these events during the week we remember and re-experience this week. As we are reminded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians this morning, Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This week, until next Sunday, is the fully human part, the fully vulnerable and fully horrible part.
Our Gospel reading today describes how the political system of the day was used to kill Jesus: his arrest, the arraignment, his torture, and death. Jesus knew these events were coming—he told his disciples what would happen to him three times before they occurred. Just thinking about the events is disturbing. But thinking about the physical suffering, emotional burdens, and personal humiliation that these events brought to Jesus’ life, is overwhelming, and brings Jesus’ humanity into a different level of reality. We know that Jesus walked a path comparable to what we experience. I am aware that the feelings and pain that we live are truly human. 100% human. So were his experiences that last week.
Our psalm today describes human suffering. It is a poem that can touch our deepest human experience with few words. It describes a level of sorrow that is isolating, one that leaves us abandoned by our friends and community. That is how likely how Jesus felt too. Perhaps Jesus even prayed this psalm as he lived that last week of his life, when he was scorned, ridiculed, plotted against, and abandoned by Peter and the other disciples.
We each connect deeply at our human level with the events of Jesus’ life this week. We all know what it is to suffer, whether with sickness, accidents, diminishment, or other losses. Nonetheless, as the events of the week unfold and we again encounter the final sufferings of Jesus, we recognize how the horror of his suffering is result of injustice in Jesus’ time. His suffering did not have to be. Injustice won, as it still does today—which is also why it is so relevant to our lives as well.
Our faith is a religion of hope. We know that God walked with Jesus through his horrific times, and that God walks with us, makes love possible, and enfolds us in hope as we encounter today’s injustices too, which we know as #Enough, #Me Too, #No More, and #Never Again. It is up to us to use God’s love to change the systems. AMEN
March 18, 2018 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
Glory to God, whose power working in us can do. . .
This is a puzzling Gospel, it begins with some Greeks. The Greeks were famous seekers, they were known to travel the world seeking after truth. Philosophy after philosophy, religion after religion, teacher after teacher, the Greeks were seekers of truth and so they came to the temple in today’s Gospel. They say to Philip, “We wish to see Jesus.” That’s not a surprise since Jesus has been doing some amazing things.
So far in John’s Gospel Jesus has changed water into wine at a wedding feast in Cana. He cleansed the temple of money changers who were taking advantage of people. He had a conversation with a Samaritan woman, promising her ‘living water’ so she’d never thirst again. He’s fed five thousand with five loaves and two fish. He walked on water, challenged religious authorities who wanted to stone a woman caught in adultery and he raised Lazarus from the dead. Just some of the amazing things Jesus had done.
It’s no wonder that these Greeks, these seekers after truth who were looking for answers to life’s ultimate questions, wanted to see Jesus. And what do they get? What’s Jesus’ response? “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who give their life will save it. The Greeks came seeking Jesus and Jesus speaks of his death, of giving Himself away.
The Greeks might have been left scratching their heads, or they might have replied that they had just received one of the greatest truths of all. It is through our wounds, our sufferings, our struggles and daily dyings that we experience growth and new life.
I remember attending a retreat a few years ago and in one session the leader held up a seed and she explained that to grow and multiply the seed needs to be cracked. It needs to be wounded, broken open to grow and flourish and multiply. If it stays safely snuggled in this protective shell, it remains just a single grain, but if it is cracked, broken open, it can grow and have new life. She encouraged us to reflect on our wounds, our sufferings and hurts, and to see how these things have helped us to change and grow. Being broken open makes room for God.
There’s a well-known Leonard Cohen song that says:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
That’s how the light gets in
The crack lets the seed grow by getting beyond its shell. The crack lets the light in so that growth can happen. Our struggles, our suffering, break us open so that the light of God’s goodness and grace can shine in our lives, so that even death doesn’t have the last word. This is the truth that Jesus is revealing to the Greek seekers and to us today.
Archbishop Oscar Romero fought for peace and justice for the oppressed in El Salvador. In March 1980 he said, “As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran People.” Just a few days later he was killed while standing at the altar, but his work continues through the people he inspired; his spirit lives on in them.
I remember attending a funeral of a woman who had done many great things in the community. The funeral was packed with people and I remember the pastor looking out at everyone and saying, “She didn’t die, she multiplied,” reminding us that we do a lot of living through those we leave behind.
The Greeks, those seekers after the truth, came to see Jesus and Jesus spoke about life coming through death, about keeping it by giving it away. May our struggles and sufferings be the crack that allows God’s light to shine in our lives and may our willingness to die to ourselves allow God to live in and through us. Amen.
March 11, 2018 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
God so loved the world that God gave and gave and gave.
Recently I heard a beautiful story first told by Alan Cohen. It seems that in a certain African tribe, when a woman knows she is pregnant, she goes out into the wilderness with a few friends. Together in the wilderness, the women pray and meditate until they “hear” the “song’ of the child. They are recognizing that every soul is unique and precious, that it has its own purpose and essence and its own vibration and resonance.
The women become attuned to the song and they sing it out loud. Then they return to their tribe and teach the child’s song to everyone else. When the child is born the community gathers and sings the child’s song to him or her. When the child begins school, the community gathers and sings the child’s song. When the child goes through the initiation to adulthood, the people come together and sing. When they are married, the young spouses hear their songs. And finally, when the soul is about to move from this would to the next, family and friends gather at their bedside and sing them into the afterlife, just as they sang at their birth.
There is one other time when these African villagers sing to the child. If at any time they do harm, commit a crime, offend another member of the tribe, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people form a circle around the them and they sing their song to them, reminding them who they belong to no matter what they have done. Instead of shame or punishment, the tribe realizes that correction for misbehavior is rooted in love and remembering one’s identity. Hearing your song, one has no desire to harm another person or oneself.
I thought of that story as I reflected on one of the most famous and well-known verses in the whole Bible which we hear in today’s Gospel, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” Now, I must confess that when I first picked up the scriptures for this fourth Sunday of Lent, I thought, “Oh no, not John 3:16 again.”
What does a passage so well known, so well worn have to say to us today? Then I remembered the story of the African villagers and everyone having a song. This is our song, we followers of Christ. Our song tells of God’s love; God’s love for us, for every person God has made, and for the whole world, God’s creation.
This is the song that we sing, God loves us and want us to enjoy the fullness of life, here in this world and in the world to come. And when we slip up, when we blow it, as we inevitably do, when we harm ourselves, or others, or the world God has made, God is not waiting to condemn us, but rather to love us back to life. God sings our song to us to remind us of who we are, God’s beloved, and that we are to treat ourselves and one another as such.
John 3:16 is our song. It is a love song from our creator intended to help us remember our true identity as God’s beloved and to inspire us to live out of that identity instead of one of many false identities we cling to. As we continue our Lenten journey let the song that God sings in John 3:16 be your song, always ringing in your ears and your heart. God so loves the world, God so loves you, fully and completely, that God sent a Son to save and not condemn, that through His self-giving love abundant life might reign.
This is our song. We need to hear it and to sing it continually to remind ourselves of who we are and whose we are, Beloved of God.
March 4, 2018 The Rev. Bill Van Oss
From Psalm 15 - The One who does justice will live in the presence of God.
It’s a powerful scene, a very powerful scene in today’s Gospel. It says: “Making a whip of cords, (Jesus) drove all of them out of the temple,” with a whip of cords. Today’s Gospel is commonly called “the cleaning of the temple.” The story appears in all four Gospels.
Jesus is upset, angry to the point of cracking a whip, driving out animals, and overturning tables because injustice and exploitation are taking place in the temple, the House of God. Good and faithful people are coming to worship and offer sacrifices. They need to exchange their Roman coins, which are idolatrous because they bear the image of the emperor with the inscription, “Caesar Augustus, the Son of God.” These coins were little idols, they claimed a human being was god, so they needed to be exchanged for non-idolatrous coinage and this opened the door for abuse.
The money changers were taking advantage of good and faithful worshippers, charging them far too much for the dove or the goat they were buying for temple sacrifice, and Jesus reacts by angrily driving them out and overturning their tables. Jesus reacts with righteous anger. People were being exploited and abused and Jesus would not stand for it. He took action and He ended up paying the price for standing against a system that both the abusers and the abused had come to accept.
I wonder how many had said along the way this isn’t right, the commandment says you shall not steal, but it’s just the way it is, what can I do about it? It’s just the way it is. It was a system they came to accept because it benefitted powerful people.
During a recent trip to San Francisco we had the wonderful opportunity to visit Grace Cathedral. If you’ve ever been there you know that when you walk in from the noise and crowds of the street you are in a holy place, God’s House. It’s magnificent and majestic. I walked in the doors and just let the beauty and the quiet sink in, and then I heard her voice, a powerful voice. I noticed a poster announcing the noon service and the speaker’s topic – “Racial justice and the Beloved Community.”
I made my way to sit in the back pew. The preacher was an African-American woman priest and she was using a whip of cords, not an actual whip, but her message, her words, her vocal cords. She spoke of the long history of slavery in our country and its impact, its lasting trauma. She spoke of incarceration rates for black males, graduation rates for students of color, and crime and poverty. She spoke of the lasting legacy of white privilege and how the church, our church, was complicit in slavery and benefited from it.
The whip of cords snapping over and over again in God’s house and tidy tables overturned, overturning tables of injustice and exploitation challenging notions of “it’s just the way it is” and attitudes accepting systems that benefit powerful people. She, like Jesus, was standing up for the abused and exploited by standing against the evil powers of this world. This is what she was doing as she followed the example of Jesus in today’s Gospel.
There are powerful systems of abuse and exploitation in our country and world today, systems, policies, assumptions that cause tremendous harm. Recently women who have been sexually abused and exploited by powerful men have fashioned whips of cords to challenge them and say to them “no more,” and standing against systems that turned a blind eye.
High school students who have witnessed mass shootings are using whips of words and actions to confront a system that allows a deeply disturbed child to buy a military-style assault weapon.
The sound of the whip can be heard from people working to protect our waters, standing up to powerful political and business interests to save the earth.
In the Gospels we often see Jesus working through gentleness and compassion. Today we see Him vigorously confronting injustice because sometimes that’s the only way to bring order from chaos. The worshippers who were in the temple the day Jesus showed up went there expecting to find the kingdom of God in that holy place, instead they found powerful, destructive forces until Jesus came and drove them out.
If we ever hope to help usher in the kingdom of God here we need to fearlessly follow Jesus’ example and stand up to any one or any force that seeks to abuse or harm any of God’s beloved children. Good people being quiet enables the forces of evil to continue their destructive march. We can’t do everything, but each of us can do something. Following Jesus’ example may we not be afraid to pick up the whip. The Psalm tells us “the One who does justice will live in the presence of God.” May it be so. Amen.