Hope you are finding ways to stay comfortable during the heat!
I know it’s hotter than it should be because of our dogs.
Most of the time, they would spend the whole day in the backyard of the Parsonage.
What dog wouldn’t? There are squirrels to chase, dogs on leashes happening by who need to be told off, preschoolers on the adjacent playground to sniff — there’s a lot to do out there.
Winter also poses its own set of challenges, but even so, they’d rather be out there more often than not.
So yesterday, when I came back from schlepping a kid from softball camp and went to let the dogs out, I was surprised to see them barrel to the door, stop, stick two paws out, and then turn around with a solid “NOPE.”
Of course, being them, they still expected a treat as if they had gone outside.
“I mean, technically, dad, isn’t sticking paws beyond the door ‘outside’?” one said.
“I mean, I certainly think so,” said the other.
“Yes, so do I,” the first one quickly agreed.
“Oh come on, go out, go out,” I said, trying to shoo them.
“We’ve been,” they both said at once.
Then the older one added: “Let’s have treats now.”
There was no convincing them — I might as well have been asking them to take a ride on the vacuum cleaner.
Treat gobbled immediately, one lay down in the door. The other gazed at contemptuously like a teenager and wandered off toward the dining room.
As I said, I was surprised, but I know how they feel.
Sometimes conditions are just not conducive.
Yet there’s a lesson here.
Our faith seeks to remake us of somewhat sterner stuff.
After all, there’s not much use for a “fair-weather Christian” — fair weather doesn’t require compassion, forgiveness, or patience in quite the same way.
Those qualities are always nice to have around, of course, but it’s in the hard times, when conditions aren’t conducive, that they become truly transformational.
That’s when they bring something new and necessary into a situation.
I need to remember that.
Like my dogs, I tend to wilt pretty quickly in the heat.
My ongoing project is to become someone who still offers the fruits of the spirit even when it’s not so easy.
So, like everybody, there are things I’m pretty good at, others that I’m not as good at, and a handful of things that make me truly bananas.
High on the “bananas” list are those automated checkout lanes at the supermarket. Those are not for me.
Along the same lines, there are those restaurants that have you order on an iPad that they have bolted to the table. Yuck.
I don’t like how the gas pump talks back to you now.
That chip they put on your credit card? Yeah…not a fan.
Ok…so maybe it’s a little more than just a handful of things.
But the thing that makes just come completely unglued is calling on the phone to try to make an appointment or deal with a bill.
I am a really nice guy. I am actually a pretty patient guy. When it comes to doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, I am a committed guy.
The whole phone thing tests All. Of. That.
“Please enter your twenty-digit personal i.d. code followed by the pound sign.”
“I’m sorry, Richard, I didn’t get that.”
“To return to the main menu, say ‘Main Menu.’”
There’s a scene in the old Charlie Chaplin movie, “Modern Times” when Charlie is working in a factory and somehow he falls into a machine and just keeps going around and around and around the gears.
Anybody remember that?
This is pretty much how I feel whenever I call Citibank.
It’s an experience I truly dread.
But there are times when, like it or not, you just have to.
There’s the tuition payment that gets declined.
There’s the Christmas shopping you absolutely need to get done this weekend.
There’s some sort of mysterious charge that doesn’t look right.
Yesterday, I couldn’t figure out how to make a payment for one of my cards.
Which is to say: I was trying to give them money.
Couldn’t do it.
And you just feel so helpless as you’re stuck there, right?
Finally, after forever, you get a person on the phone—but as you know, even that doesn’t mean that you’re exactly out of the woods.
I feel like I can tell within the first five seconds if I’m finally saved or if I’m just taking another turn around the gears of the big machine.
I find that so interesting.
Because you know that everyone at the company received the same training.
You know that when the call really is being monitored for quality assurance, it’s the same supervisor who’s checking the same group on all the same stuff.
You know that wherever these folks are, they’re all sitting side by side with their headsets and their computer screens, punching in and punching out at the same time.
And yet the difference between Danielle at USAA Savings Bank and Anthony at USAA Savings Bank is like the difference between Dolly Parton and Lurch from the “Addams Family.”
Danielle is going to talk you through it. Danielle is going to figure things out. Danielle sees you down there in that ditch, and she actually wants to get you out of it.
Anthony…not so much.
By this, I don’t mean that Danielle will solve your issue and Anthony won’t.
I mean that, in solving your issue, Danielle makes you feel cared for. Cared about. Seen and heard.
Whatever it is about life that seems to grind us down hasn’t managed to grind her down one bit.
She doesn’t treat you like a customer.
She treats you like a neighbor.
Our story from Luke’s gospel this morning is trying to get its hands around just what it means to be a neighbor.
Clearly, he sees it as much of the ancient world and much of the current world (in other places) do, which is to say, as far more than just an accident of proximity.
To be neighbors involves a certain amount of obligation to one another. A certain sense of a shared destiny, somehow.
That’s why Jesus tells the parable in the first place.
A lawyer has approached him and asked “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus puts the question right back to him, saying, “What do you read in the law?”
The lawyer replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus commends that answer.
But the lawyer persists and says, “But who is my neighbor?”
What being neighbors ought to entail does not seem to be his question, although it is a key part of where Jesus takes the parable.
The lawyer is more focused on who rather than what.
And by way of response, Jesus tells this story about a man who is attacked, robbed, stripped, and left half-dead in a ditch along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
He tells it in a way that if you’re focused on who rather than what, the story becomes particularly hard to hear.
Not one, but two emphatically “religious” men…men of a certain consequence and reputation…men who, not for nothing, have business in Jerusalem related to the Temple itself…they take one look at this crumpled figure in the dirt and cross to the other side of the road without stopping.
The one who does stop is, of course, designed to have kind of a maximum yuck factor for the lawyer.
The one who stops is a rich Samaritan—a person who would have been hated, and if at all possible, avoided—someone for whom the feeling was, in most cases, mutual.
Except that, in this case, it’s not mutual.
Not at all.
And this is the whole point.
The two who might have been expected to stop do not stop.
The one who would have been excused by everyone for not even slowing downnot only does that but does so much more.
Shocking as it is to imagine, he goes far beyond any formal expectation of what care requires.
Because what he sees is a person who needs care.
He sees what all of us really ought to see…what we hope we’ll see…at a moment like that.
Of course, if you’ve ever had a “Good Samaritan” moment of your own, you may remember that it wasn’t entirely easy to see.
Or, to put it differently…you may remember that it can be easy enough to seesomeone who seems like they are having trouble.
Even if the moment happens suddenly…as such moments often do…you can see it.
But alongside that, there are other things.
Hesitations that rush in.
Things that can be hard to see past for one reason or another.
And the point is that Jesus suggests that this is not seeing, but a deeper kind of blindness.
It gets in the way of the good that needs doing – the good that is ours to do in that moment.
But the Samaritan does not hesitate. He is not blinded in this way.
He sees a neighbor in distress. So he responds.
Because whatever it is about life that seems to grind people down hasn’t managed to grind him down one bit.
What’s that supposed to teach us?
Faith is often described as a kind of innocence – a form of naivete.
Even Jesus describes it that way, as he warns his followers that he sends them out as sheep in the midst of wolves.
Life can be very hard on our hope in redemption, or at least, on our hope in easyredemption.
There are some things we can’t do, even if we want to.
But if life teaches us to stop wanting to, then we’ve learned the wrong lesson.
Because if we stop wanting to help – if we stop trying to see – if we stop opening ourselves up to the claims of our neighbors, then the wolves win another round.
The vulnerability of faith is the thing that makes it strong.
It’s what makes God’s transformation possible…what gives Jesus some room to work.
It’s not a refusal to see or face the facts—it’s an argument about what the facts really are.
If you’ve ever been out there, lying half-dead in one of the ditches of life, you can hear the sound of the people who pass by.
You come to have a very different understanding of the relevant facts.
You can hear the abrupt silence when they notice you…and the sound as they do their best to tiptoe away swiftly.
What you’re praying for is the sound of the person who comes to help…the approaching footsteps of the one who comes in peace.
You’re praying for someone who will see you as their neighbor. Who will remember that fact.
The best of us do.
In a world that seems so determined to grind us down, there are those who have the courage to live differently.
To stand for something else.
To believe that something better is possible for us all.
This is who Jesus calls us to be.
“Go thou and do likewise,” he says.
Whatever our own burdens and frustrations…whatever we’re pretty good at, not so good at, and whatever it is that makes us truly bananas…may we heed that call.
May we remember the Samaritan and go and do likewise on any road we travel.
A few days ago, the New York Times ran a piece about a new trend you may not have heard about.
It seems that all across the country, and to some extent, the world, people are choosing to remember their relatives by carving one of their cherished recipes on their gravestone.
As in: “Mom’s Christmas Cookies: cream one cup sugar, half a cup oleo, add two beaten eggs and one teaspoon vanilla”…etc.
It’s not clear that mom’s name or her dates are even on the stone at all – though maybe they’re on the other side.
Of course, if your recipe specifically calls for “oleo,” then a lot of us can pretty much guess your dates, so maybe the specifics don’t matter.
But as the Times reports:
“In cemeteries from Alaska to Israel, families have memorialized their loved ones with the deceased’s most cherished recipes carved in stone. These dishes — mostly desserts — give relatives a way to remember the sweet times and, they hope, bring some joy to visitors who discover them among the more traditional monuments.”
Of course, there are also issues.
In one case, the gravestone company apparently made an error on a fudge recipe which nobody caught until twenty years later, when the other grandparent died…and so for twenty years, anyone who actually gave the recipe a try had been making runny fudge.
If this were a movie, don’t you think that the family would be terrorized by the ghost of fudge-making past, or something?
Well, now they’ve fixed it.
The memory is secure.
Still, it is an interesting trend.
If you were going to be known in perpetuity for just one recipe, what would it be?
Do you know?
Mine would probably be the phone number for Panda Pavillion.
But in all seriousness: if you were known for just one recipe, what would it be?
And what would your hopes for it be?
What would keeping it alive mean to you?
Does it mean the generations will follow it exactly that way forever?
Or does “keeping it alive” mean that each generation gets to build on it…introduce variations…go with “an experiment” in some years and put that before the family jury?
The handing down of recipes is a powerful legacy.
When my parents were married, my dad’s mom sat down and dutifully copied her recipes into a composition book for her new daughter-in-law.
My mom not only still has it. She still uses it.
There are slight differences in the copy my grandmother made for my mom and the copy she made for my Aunt Wendy, and this has meant fifty years of phone consultations and verification and penciled-in corrections.
They’ve also added different recipes of their own.
Other families don’t work that way.
When the parents of a friend of mine were married in India, the bride’s mother-in-law came to live with them for six months for the express purpose of teaching her the recipes.
That the new bride was already a medical doctor with a lot to do was sort of an irrelevant detail.
She needed to learn to make things correctly.
This seems to be especially worth pondering on a holiday weekend – and all the more so on this particular holiday weekend.
The Fourth of July is the most important of our civic holidays, and replete with tradition.
Keith Lockhart is the conductor of the Boston Pops now and has been for almost thirty years.
But to me, it’s like Arthur Fiedler just passed the baton yesterday.
And when I hear the Boston Pops, it might be the new guy up there swinging his arms around, but it’s Arthur Fiedler that I think I hear.
Somehow, he’s still part of my recipe.
More deeply, July 4th is the day when we remember how the Founders left us a recipe.
Their own moment was powerfully experimental.
It had to be.
Their circumstances were chaotic and, at times, terrifying.
If what they built could not endure, the future would be bleak, indeed.
So when Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” it is important to remember how little else actually was.
Yet he and the Founders believed that to be human itself was to be endowed with certain rights, among them, as Jefferson notes, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
That particular phrase is closely associated with Jefferson but comes from the English philosopher John Locke.
The Founders agreed that whatever followed needed to start from those principles.
Any vision of a workable future needed to begin there.
And throughout our history, when things have become less than self-evident, we have returned to that recipe.
We have tested our understanding of the way forward by going back to this particular affirmation of who we are.
We argue over its meanings.
After all, what is it to “pursue happiness”?
But we come back to the question because it’s always a good question, though rarely an easy one.
And it is in our capacity to wrestle with it that we are equipped to move forward.
Similarly, in our Gospel this morning, Luke describes a moment when Jesus sends out 70 of his followers to proclaim the Good News throughout the countryside.
It is another story of equipping.
And what comes through so powerfully is how carefully Jesus is trying to prepare them.
He knows it won’t be easy.
He knows they will be rejected by many and scrutinized by everyone.
He not only thinks he’s sending them out as sheep into the midst of wolves, he even tells them so.
But he knows that he has to start getting them ready.
He knows that the transformation of the world depends on him, but that this can only happen as the world finds a way to find him—and that this will be the work of many hands, and many generations.
He knows there will be failures alongside of the successes—that’s already happened to him, too.
And so he gives them this recipe—these steps to follow as they go out on the roads in his name.
What is that recipe?
It’s interesting that he doesn’t say much by way of what they’re actually supposed to preach.
He’s not all that specific about that part.
According to Luke, Jesus just says to tell everyone that “the Kingdom of God has drawn near.”
Maybe that’s a little bit like the idea of the “pursuit of happiness,” which is to say, maybe it’s not supposed to be limited to just one very specific thing.
It’s a touchstone.
It gives you a way to name something you see—or feel—not once, but continually.
It leaves the people in each town with something to debate and discover together, even find new meaning in, well after the missionaries have moved on.
It imagines a life in which people evolve and discover and meander, but always with something fundamental to return to.
To reorient themselves by.
A bit ominously, Jesus says:
But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say,
10:11 ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’
That means, offer people these words, knowing that they may not mean much to those people now, but in the hope that someday, they will.
Someday, their capacity to guide you, to remind you who you really are, might finally kick in.
Recipes have the power to remind us where we’re from, who we are, and the great legacy of all that has been done for us.
They are alive—growing and changing, as we grow and change, but always seeking to call us back should we stray too far.
They are a central expression of the love and wisdom of families…the love and wisdom of nations.
But most of all, they are a central expression of the love and wisdom of Jesus.
May we join the work to which they call us.
May those who follow receive it from our hands with gratitude and joy.
The Apostle Paul almost certainly went to a school with a pretty formal dress code, but he was still one of those kids.
You know the kind I mean.
The kind of kid who shows up in a jacket and tie even when you don’t have to, because he likes it.
The actual point he’s making might be obscure, but the fact that he’s making one is unmistakable.
If you’re from the 80s and remember Alex P. Keaton from “Family Ties,” that’s sort of Paul as I picture him…except Paul was probably more snide.
He seems like he would have been a fast talker, and that in a way that most kids and many adults don’t especially like but still recognize as a mark of someone destined to go far, just the same.
As places go, Tarsus was not a bad place to be from.
The initiation fee to become a citizen of Tarsus, and by extension, of Rome itself, was about a year and half’s wages, which tells you the sort of person they had in mind for citizenship—and someone seems to have gone ahead and paid this for Paul, even as Paul was already bound for Jerusalem and the great stage that the Temple would have offered for someone like him, a quick-thinking, fast-talking young man who wanted “in.”
When it came to his faith, he was a true believer from the first, but not necessarily in a good way.
He had a score-keeping side, and in his case, that meant that righteousness didn’t do anything much for his heart.
Unlike some of the other well-placed Temple leaders we encounter in Christian Scripture, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, Paul’s personal faith had not offered much by way of an emotional education, or taught him what it was to feel for other people.
That’s a fault.
The Scripture he would have known was far from silent on such matters.
The Hebrew Bible describes chesed, lovingkindness, as an attribute of God which God’s people are to practice.
It describes God as deeply concerned with mishpat, justice, particularly for those with few resources or worldly influence.
Those do not appear to have spoken to this young man, particularly.
Moreover, there is something profoundly solitary about him.
Maybe he was saving up the energy actual friendship requires, anticipating that later on, there would be time for that…once he’d gotten to where he belonged and it made sense to invest time in knowing whomever else he found there.
He first appears in the Book of Acts at the stoning of Stephen, who is considered the first martyr of the church.
We’re told that Paul (or Saul, as he was still known at that point) was holding the coats of the people who did the actual stoning, which is somewhere between being included and not included—like being the pledge the seniors send out to get more beer.
And so in the place where this morning’s Scripture opens, no wonder that Saul is on the road outside Damascus, entrepreneurial in his enthusiasm.
He’s just itching to bring back some other Christian to Jerusalem for the gang, to get another chance to hold their coats, and perhaps, to take another step or two further inside their circle.
The world still has its share of people like Saul.
Don’t we all know people who push everyone away rather than face what’s right in front of them?
Isn’t it true that sometimes the brokenness we are most blind to is our own brokenness?
Jesus warned us about the speck we see in our brother’s eye, as we ignore the log in our own.
We don’t just see it in the murderous self-righteousness of Saul before his moment on the Damascus Road, but in so much of the brokenness of our own world.
We see it in the boss who won’t retire. The alcoholic who won’t recover. The husband who won’t go to therapy. The sister who won’t apologize.
It’s probably in all of us, somewhere.
There are even those who are essentially willing to go unloved if that’s what it takes in order to stay unreal.
To be able to keep up our act.
But then, suddenly, there on the road to Damascus, everything changes for Saul.
Jesus is suddenly present in a blinding light, and he takes Saul and cracks him open like an egg.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he says.
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and go to the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
What follows is a complete reversal of the life that Saul has worked so hard to build.
Ultimately, Saul will come to be known as Paul.
He will become a central figure in the Church—the most important voice in the New Testament outside of the Gospels, themselves—which is why we make a point of remembering his conversion in such detail.
Yet the silences of the story seem important, too.
Because who comes to claim this guy after he limps into Damascus blind, literally “led by the hand” according to the story, and unable to eat or drink for days?
His traveling companions seem like they check him into his hotel, pull off his sandals, drop him on his bed, and hustle to make the 4:55 Acela back to Jerusalem.
They leave the story without a word.
Clearly, whoever it was who had sent him out does not seem to want him back, either. Not now.
Why would they?
Saul has abruptly outlived his usefulness. Now he can’t even guard someone’s coat.
Ironically, the only people who come forward to claim this broken shell of a man are the people whose faithfulness he has been so pointedly unwilling to try to see or understand.
These folks would turn out to be an odd assortment of mismatched socks, in a way, but their faith has taught them to see what he cannot, and to recognize the potential for good even in the likes of him.
Among the many reasons he needs them, that’s really why he needs them the most.
Oddly enough, his blindness might actually be the least of it.
It’s learning to live with what he now understands that’s the hard part.
Because his self-deception is abruptly no longer possible.
Now he can no longer keep his eyes on the world’s distorted vision of what success and character and control are supposed to look like.
He can no longer be misled by his own misguided dreams.
That’s all gone.
Yet without all it, what’s left?
At first, it isn’t clear that anything is.
Except that, in this fragile moment, these people can somehow find a way to love him.
They are able to name the goodness of God in rescuing him.
They are able to sit with him as the future comes to find him.
What’s left is a new life as a follower of Jesus, wherever that may lead, which is to say, what’s left is actually everything, as he will soon come to understand.
To me, that’s why this is such an important story for the church.
It’s not because Paul became a towering figure, although he most certainly did.
It’s that his conversion points to so much that Jesus still directs his church to be.
Brave. Trusting. Patient. Welcoming. Loving.
It’s a story that teaches us to ask: whom is Jesus asking us to sit with in the darkness, as they wait for the future? And how do we do that without pretending to know that future?
Who needs us to name the goodness of God for rescuing them, especially when all that used to seem so certain is now no longer so? How can we do that without putting a smiley face on their anguish?
Whom does Jesus need us to love through their fragile moments in all the ways we can, particularly without quietly requiring them to make progress on our schedule rather than God’s and their own?
Who needs us to affirm their dignity in a world that can be so quick to look away or cast them aside, particularly without inadvertently placing ourselves at the center of their story?
These are not questions that the church can ever hope to answer once and for all.
But we know that in the sudden absence of someone’s illusions, there is suddenly and abruptly the presence of Christ.
And as the scales fall from their eyes, may they find themselves in the company of someone who will look on them with love.
Many would say that it’s not hard to believe in new life on Easter Sunday, especially in a lovely Connecticut town after a week of especially welcoming weather, and in a world mostly reopening after being mostly closed for so long.
New life of one kind or another is all around us right now, and a person would have to be pinched, indeed, not to have some sign of it in mind this morning.
Two years ago, when everyone was battening down the hatches, our deacons decided to venture out and deliver Easter lilies to folks in our church family.
And it was only as the seriousness of COVID really dawned on us all that our Senior Deacon began adding names to the list, and calling back the florist to order more lilies, not once but twice, as our sense of who might just need a little sign of hope began to get bigger and more urgent.
Proclaiming new life may not feel quite so defiant as that this morning.
Some—and doesn’t everyone have a brother in law like this?—might even say nature and science have really stolen some of the church’s thunder this year when it comes to new life, although I don’t think so.
God’s handiwork takes any number of forms, and God’s hand is stirring the waters in any number of situations.
For those with eyes to see, there is plenty of God in what has led us to this point.
In any case, if for a season the church had to make sure the lilies found you, now many folks, and certainly all of you here, have come to the church to find the lilies, and we are glad.
New life has new meaning for us this Easter, and we are delighted to be sharing it.
On that first Easter, it is clear that nobody woke up with an expectation of new life.
This week, I watched a 45 minute walking tour via Zoom of the Via Dolorosa, the sorrowful road, which is what Christians have called the path that Jesus walked through Jerusalem as he carried the cross on Good Friday, all the way to Golgotha, outside the city gates, where he was crucified.
On the morning of the third day, the women going to the tomb would have walked some of those same limestone streets.
Faded now by the centuries into a golden yellow today, back then, some of those streets were still newly-cut and would have been dazzling white, particularly in the harshness of the Middle Eastern sun.
Not that this would have been the case when the women set out, carrying spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
When they stepped out from wherever they were – maybe the upper room? — it was probably a half hour before dawn, and all would have been shadow—and given the heaviness of their hearts, that may have suited them just fine.
In a city bursting with Roman soldiers and willing collaborators, it was probably wise enough to have some shadows to duck into.
Scripture does not offer a definitive list of whom from among the women who followed Jesus were the ones who went to the tomb.
It’s fairly certain that few of them were from Jerusalem, specifically, and it’s possible that none were, which bears mentioning only because it is not clear how they would have known exactly how to get where they were going—especially in the dark.
Their newness to the city, notwithstanding, there was at least one map already seared on their hearts: the map of Good Friday…the path that Jesus had walked on that last day.
The Via Dolorosa. The sorrowful road.
Calling it that would have made perfect sense to the women on that early Sunday morning back then, too.
You can picture them threading their way along, maybe not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be a right or a left at some point among those narrow streets, but then one of them murmurs: “This is the corner where he fell,” and they realize where they are.
A little later, his mother might say: “This is where I was standing when first saw him.”
Then a bit further along, someone else, maybe Joanna, the wife of Chusa hesitates for a moment, and then says “This is where he was dizzy, and the Libyan man had to carry the cross for a while. “
And so they “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow, through” the city “made their solitary way.” (John Milton)
Retracing those steps through the twists and turns of those close streets meant reliving the whole terrible thing. Remembering what it had been like to see it happening.
It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes.
Faith and hope are so intertwined so much of the time, and yet there seems to be a kind of hopelessness to their faithful service on that morning that I have never experienced.
The poet Robert Hayden has a poem that refers to “love’s unseen and lonely offices,” and surely this is one of those.
At most, it seems to be a one-sided gesture of devotion that is destined to end wherever it stops, and that cannot expect anything by way of formal conclusion.
This is all the more so when they arrive at the garden and see that the stone in front of the tomb has been rolled away.
Not many folks would have felt compelled to proceed at that point.
At least, I don’t think many would.
If it wasn’t quite dawn yet, and there were still a few gloomy corners among the other burial vaults, some might have folded themselves into one of those for a while and watched the open tomb for signs of movement or listened for the sound of marching soldiers.
Others would have decided that this last gesture was apparently not meant to be and would have gone back the way they had come.
But there is a kind of love that refuses to stop loving.
There is a kind of love that won’t stop, even as the dangers rise and the pain sears and there is no map and there is no plan and any sense of control evaporates, and these women knew it.
They knew what it was to love like that.
Some of them had known it from giving birth, which required them to lie at the gates of death itself in order to bring in new life.
Some of them knew it from being the most immediate witnesses to Jesus’ death.
And they knew that kind of love from Jesus.
On the cross, they had seen it on his face.
In that supreme act of tenderness and vulnerability, they recognized a power that can only come from the source of life itself.
And so when two men dressed in white, dazzling as the limestone of Jerusalem at noon, appear and tell them that Jesus is risen…when the two men ask them “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”…the women stand there, puzzled for a moment—“perplexed,” as Luke says, but only for a moment.
Luke also says they were terrified, and so they were…but only for a moment.
Because standing for life amid what seems as if it must be death was who they were.
It’s why they were there.
It’s what they stood for.
And not just them.
It’s what the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who helped bring Moses into the world, right under the nose of Pharoah, had stood for.
It’s what the Hebrew people, stepping into the waters of the Red Sea, trusting even as they waded up to their necks that God would deliver them, had stood for.
It’s what Ruth, the grandmother of King David, remaining with her mother-in-law in the face of famine, had stood for.
It’s what Ezekiel stood for, literally standing in a valley of dry bones, when he hears a voice telling him to ask if these bones shall live.
It’s what every healing, every feeding, every pronouncement of forgiveness Jesus ever did had stood for.
It is proclaiming the power of life in the face of death.
For Jesus, that power can only be understood in terms of a love that is greater than we are—a love that calls us from narrow lives focused only on ourselves to the greater vocation of living as children of God.
We see that love in the faithfulness of the women on Easter morning.
It’s the love they had seen in Jesus on the cross: a love that refuses to stop loving—a love that proclaims the power of life, even in the face of death—a love that the Church would come to affirm as nothing less than the way, the truth and the life.
We affirm it again this morning.
We affirm it whenever we see the presence of the risen Christ alive in acts of healing, forgiveness, dignity and peace, lifting the world from perdition to redemption, and despair to joy.
It is not so easy in these times to keep an open mind, much less an open heart.
But the empty tomb of Easter reminds us that the God who is at work in the world is almost certainly at work on us, rolling back every stone with a love that even death itself could not contain.
It announces the God who always stands for us, and so teaches us to stand, strong in our commitment to the good, and defiant in our capacity for hope.
To call today “good” might be among the strangest things that Christians do, because it’s just the opposite.
Not all Christians call today Good Friday.
In many parts of Europe, today is known as Holy Friday.
In Denmark, it’s Long Friday, which is apparently also what the Anglo-Saxons also called it .
In Greek liturgies it is “the Holy and Great Friday.”
Exactly how the English-speaking world came to call it “Good” is not known.
But it does name something important about today, because while being a Christian on Good Friday can certainly be both “long” and “holy,” it is more than that.
Calling it good challenges us to see some of God’s redemptive purpose at work, even from within the terrible injustice and sadness and violence of everything that today asks us to remember.
The particular challenge for us is to hold the gory details in tension with this call to understand its goodness, and not just to breeze through what happens because it all turns out all right, or to dismiss the larger meaning as merely sentimental or wishful thinking before the reality of life’s pain.
It’s a day that asks a lot of us.
As the Gospels make clear, Good Friday is an elaborate performance of the world at its murderous worst, and its betrayals are many.
The disciples are spineless and scared, but far from villainous.
The story also tells us about those strange bedfellows, the Roman Governor and the Temple leadership, who manage to find common cause only long enough to get Jesus killed and then seem poised to become quick enemies again.
The crowd, some of whom had likely cheered Jesus when he had arrived on Palm Sunday, now cheer wildly as the Romans nail him to the cross, perhaps craving the immediate outlet of violence more than the definitive resolution of justice.
By contrast, the Roman soldiers themselves are relatively compassionate, charged with attending to the mechanics of death, but able at their own discretion to see that it happens quickly, which they do.
At the foot of the cross, it appears that putting someone out of their misery is what mercy has been reduced to.
The whole day would appear quite differently in the light of Easter, when it would be clearer that much more was happening than had appeared from on the ground at Golgotha, the place of the skull.
Much later, the Church would come to claim it was nothing less than the death of Death itself that happened on the cross.
It was the end of brokenness and betrayal and sin as the bottom line or final word about human destiny.
Why that required the death of God’s son is complicated, and the answers offered by some of the Church’s top people over the last two thousand years can still seem more technical than comforting.
Maybe the best we can say is that on this day when everything good in people and everything good about the world seemed clearly so absent, God was nevertheless present.
Something supremely redemptive was also there, taking hold in the world even as Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of God and breathed his last.
So we call it “Good Friday,” not because the events of the day are supposed to be good, but because God is good, which it is the church’s vocation to remember, and because Jesus is alive, not only in his own redemption, but in ours.
It’s good when a person gives up addiction and decides to live.
It’s good when families and communities and nations add up the astronomical costs of division and decide to work for peace.
It’s good when someone who has lived under lies and self-delusion decides to reach for truth.
Whenever someone leaves the certainty of brokenness and steps into the in-between space of the not yet, it is good—so brave, so hard, so fragile, so hopeful, and so good.
As Christians, we understand Jesus to be active in such moments, leading the world to new life and patiently gathering all Creation to himself.
Today also challenges us to imagine where the world would be if he were not – if today actually had been the end, and the hope he represented had turned out to be in vain, and today was not Good Friday, at all, but just, well, Friday.
Maybe it is only as we come to know God that we can learn how to call today “good” and mean it.
It is in remembering that the one who felt so forsaken in his last moments does not forsake us, and in seeing him at work even now in lives redeemed, trust restored, minds changed, and hearts finally ready to love and be loved.
As he commended his spirit into the Father’s hands, may today teach us to commend our spirits into his, remembering with gratitude that his hands are ever ready to receive us.
I always tell people that what we do here tonight, gathering to mark Maundy Thursday, is among the most meaningful services that churches do.
We tell elements of its story every time the Church celebrates Communion.
But to be honest, I’m not sure it always registers.
I think for many people, Communion is just one of those hokey things that churches do.
We talk about it as meal, even a banquet, and yet it’s scarcely a crumb and just barely a sip…and from that we’re supposed to feel something—not just “fed,” but closer to God, or at least, closer to one another (although truth be told, that’s often the harder of the two).
Communion is supposed to teach us.
How it’s supposed to do that can be hard to say.
That’s why tonight is so helpful.
Tonight, we tell more of the story, and that equips us particularly to remember that the meal comes just before the lights begin to go out.
It happens at the threshold of the hours when the darkness will grow, and when suddenly it will seem poised to win.
It will seem as if Jesus’ light has been extinguished.
The writing is on the wall for all that as he welcomes the disciples and washes their feet and prays and teaches…and then ultimately, takes the bread and the cup.
Knowing what he knows, this is what he chooses to do.
It’s unclear at best if the disciples sensed anything different about the occasion.
If they noticed a kind of heaviness about him on that evening, it is not recorded, anywhere.
In some ways, the heart of John’s whole Gospel is the extended sermon that Jesus was said to have delivered that night, a farewell discourse which runs through five full chapters of wisdom and warning, ominous if you’d read it just a few hours later.
It seems possible to imagine Judas sitting there, with silver in his pocket and detailed plans for what will happen next, but for the moment he is there listening, still nominally one of them, even as he scans Jesus’ face for any inkling and wonders when he might slip out the door and meet up with the Romans for the short march to Gethsemane.
If I had been there, would I have wanted to know? I’m not sure.
It’s also possible, I suppose, that the church might have elected to remember this evening by reading those five chapters from John together in their entirety, in the hope of making better disciples out of us.
Except that’s not what Jesus said to do in order to remember him.
He said to remember the meal.
When it comes to the darkness, we probably don’t need reminding.
In our own ways, we are not strangers to moments when the darkness grows and our own light seems at least to flicker.
H.L. Mencken once observed that “Happiness is the china shop; love is the bull,” which, like Mencken himself, that has the quality of being simultaneously funny and utterly grim.
But it seems to suggest that avoiding love is our only hope of happiness, and Jesus, of course, says just the opposite.
Jesus’ view was that when life comes crashing down around us, what will see us through is being able to love in the ways he teaches us to love.
So then, knowing what we know, about life, about people, about our own shortcomings, about heartbreak in any of its many forms, what will we choose to do?
When life comes crashing down around us, will we shun brokenness or learn to find God within it?
What Jesus shows us in Communion is God’s willingness to bring all that is broken and all who are broken permanently into the life of God.
It reminds us that in those moments when the lights seem to go out one by one, there are people able to sit with us in the darkness, holding our hand until the dawn comes, waiting until it becomes possible to speak about gathering the fragments back up again.
This seems to be what Jesus had in mind, both for Communion and for us, as he faced his own hour of darkness.
Maybe it makes sense, then, that when we practice it, all we get is a crumb and one small sip.
It shows us that even the smallest gesture and the easiest act of kindness, offered in love, and in memory of the one who loved us so deeply, can represent a banquet for the person who needs it.
A token of the coming dawn.
May it offer us strength and peace tonight, and all our days.
When I was just shy of thirteen, my parents took me on my first big trip: ten days in London and Paris over Christmas and New Year’s.
And while I remember London, and it was great—oh my goodness: PARIS.
I was a New Yorker and certainly used to cities.
And yet, I was not emotionally prepared for Paris.
For so many reasons, it was something. Even to a teenager.
We arrived in the late afternoon. Found our way from Gare du Nord to our hotel, which was near the Boulevard St. Michel.
As darkness fell, I told my parents that I wanted to go to a bookstore I’d noticed as we’d pulled in – a place that was only a stone’s throw from our room, which you could plainly see from our hotel window.
I don’t remember how I said this. I hope I was nonchalant.
Now that I am a parent, myself, I reckon such moments differently—and so let’s see: 13 year old kid. Foreign country. New city. Foreign language I’d been studying for a little more than a year, which was just enough to say my name and that, whoever you were, I was enchanted to make your acquaintance.
There was different money. It was nighttime.
I’m not sure why I floated this idea.
My parents were firmly of the “come straight home from school and call each of us at work when you’re there” school of parenting.
But for whatever reason, this time they said yes.
So out I went into the world.
And for fifteen minutes, and unbeknownst to me, probably with my mom pressed to the window, watching my every move, I had a taste of what it was to be grown up. What it was to be free.
I’ve been remembering that as I’ve been reading Luke’s account of Palm Sunday this week.
I’m remembering what it was like to be stepping out—to be stepping into a city I’d been hearing about and learning about and trying to imagine for what seemed like ages.
For the followers of Jesus, the city of Jerusalem would have been Paris and Washington and New York and Chicago all rolled into one.
It was not obvious that a person from the hinterlands would ever find their way there in a lifetime.
But there they were.
How thrilling it must have been. Unbelievable.
Jerusalem was always packed for the holiday of Passover, so we have to imagine the disciples walking up the road into the holy among hundreds of pilgrims.
In the case of the disciples, they were probably pushing it, feeling the burn as they tried to get there early enough that they could greet Jesus when he arrived on that donkey, so that when he arrived, they’d be standing around in their Yankees caps and their black jeans like city slickers who’d been there forever.
“Hey Jesus, what took you so long?”
They must have felt so free.
As if anything was possible.
That’s how he’d taught them to feel about themselves. To see their lives as full of possibility.
For so many others, life was little more than a foregone conclusion, as something all but certain to move along a very narrow path.
Stay close to home. Honor your parents. Take up the work of your ancestors and station in life. Marry the one your parents said was right for the family…and, you know, more or less, for you. Teach your children to stay close to home, to honor their parents, to take up the work of their ancestors and station in life…and so on.
That’s how it had been for them, before they met Jesus.
By contrast, Jesus seemed to represent something far less certain, but far more alive.
We can sense it in the call stories of the first disciples, which we usually read just after Christmas—all those stories of people in the midst of another day on the job in the family boat when Jesus shows up and spirits them away from all that.
And now it’s gotten them to the gates of the capital, itself.
All four gospels mention the arrival in Jerusalem, each one with its own emphasis.
It’s actually only in John’s Gospel that we hear about palms.
In Luke, the disciples throw their cloaks on the colt, and a few others make a kind of red carpet with their cloaks along the way, right up to the gates of town.
All four gospels talk about crowds.
But Luke is the only one who includes the powerful detail of the Pharisees calling out to Jesus from the sidelines of the crowd.
They tell him to knock it off with this whole display, which they can only see as a mockery of tradition.
And Jesus answers them, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
It’s as if the whole city is suddenly thrumming, feeling that same freedom that the disciples are feeling, sharing their expectation that with this man, and especially in this place, anything is possible.
Jesus is coming up the hillside on that colt, parting the pilgrims on either side like Moses parting the Red Sea.
If you know the story, you’ll also know that what happens next unfolds quite differently.
The story gets darker quickly.
But the church has held on to this story, doing its best to remember this moment, just the same.
And I think it’s done that because for some of them, looking back later, it was a first, all too brief but nevertheless, wonderful moment when the scope of a new life in Jesus really began to come into view.
It was here that something about Jesus started to feel…eternal.
With everything they’d already seen, it seems sort of amazing they hadn’t put it together yet.
At various points, it’s hard to say if it’s the gospel writers or Jesus himself who are more frustrated with how slow on the uptake the disciples turn out to be.
But that’s also a little harsh.
If there is one question that the gospels keep coming back to, it isn’t how Jesus does what he does or even why Jesus does what he does.
Those are things that come up only now and again.
The question that always comes up is “Who is this?”
The reason the gospels keep circling back to it may have less to do with the understanding of the disciples, and more to do with the fact that this is the question that answers all the others.
Who is this?
If you can answer that, then many of the hows and whys of life pretty much fall into place.
For many, Palm Sunday was the moment when they first began to have an answer.
And what they also begin to understand is that who they are—who they really are—and who all of us really are—can only take its proper shape as we learn to live as he calls us to live.
So if this was the moment when something about Jesus suddenly started to feel eternal, then it was also a moment when it seemed like something about themselves might hope to have a place in his eternity.
As we said, over the next few days, they would fall well short of that vision.
One of them would even directly betray it.
The church has always expected itself to remember that, too.
But even with that just ahead, this first inkling of freedom has never lost its power to remind, encourage, and inspire us.
Just because marriage is hard doesn’t mean weddings aren’t wonderful.
The fundamental challenge of marriage is to keep seeing one another as the same people of love and hope and joy that we were on that first day, even as life and decrepitude and our own shortcomings keep getting in the way.
One of the fundamental challenges of faith is to keep believing that God could possibly love us, seeing what God must see, and knowing what God must know.
But on Palm Sunday, we get that first inkling of just how deeply God does love us.
We begin to see what true freedom might mean.
Maybe there were palms on the road that day, like John says. Or maybe it was cloaks, like Luke does.
Either way, fear not. The King approaches. Our liberation is at hand.
With Holy Week and Easter quickly approaching, I hope you’re planning to join us for some of the most significant services in the Christian year.
The emotional arc of the week begins with the joy of Palm Sunday, then becomes poignant and somber for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and finally ends with the surprised hope of our Easter Sunrise service and the exuberant praise of the Festival Service.
It’s a lot of church, I know—and that can set up an odd sense of “should” for many people, who feel as if they should want to be there, or maybe: who feel as if they should want to want to be there.
The week invites us to reimagine the last days of Jesus, and to put ourselves, sympathetically, in the swirl of how the disciples felt as it all unfolded before them.
No wonder people are inclined to pass, even if they won’t quite say so (at least to their pastor).
It’s true I value each of the services as well as the full package of them all.
And yet, for those who won’t be there: I do get it.
Given what we know of swirling emotions, and of how little it takes to stir us up, as it is, some of the deepest promise of faith is for a measure of equanimity through it all.
If so, who needs remedial exposure to soaring and crashing, hoping and despairing on alternate days? Life is already like that.
Asking for more is just being a glutton for punishment rather than a connoisseur of Christ.
I hear that.
I would also say that it isn’t my experience, and really isn’t the experience of most people who actually attend.
It’s not some vaguely triggering drama.
Because surely it is also true that there are times in our lives when the Christian story really hits home, and we are able to hear it in a new way.
This is especially true when we listen to the story together in community, and we realize what it must be like for others whose stories and circumstances we know to be listening beside us.
The pain of loss, the puzzlement of the unexpected, the hope around a new beginning are always in the room whenever the Gospel is proclaimed.
We sense that in one another.
The deeper affirmation is that the love of God is also there between us, continuing Christ’s own redemptive work as we learn to bear one another’s burdens and to rejoice in one another’s joys.
Holy Week and Easter remind us that, in fact, faith does not offer us equanimity, but rather company—a confidence that whatever we go through, we do not face it alone.
Where two or three are gathered, he is always in the midst of us.
Living into what that offers and asks of us is fundamental to becoming a Christian, remembering how Jesus taught us that to welcome one another is to welcome him.
With its wide range of emotions, we may not exactly welcome Holy Week.
But each year, it helps us learn how eagerly God yearns to welcome us.
As many of you know, last week, we Grants were away, enjoying a week in Aruba as a way of marking two years without air travel and of celebrating a window of post-COVID immunity for the four of us.
Where do you go when, suddenly, you can go pretty much anywhere?
For us, it was Aruba—largely because two of us (Emily and I) are big fans of a “lazy river,” a particular kind of meandering, “circular” swimming pool with a gentle current, such that you can hop on your inner tube and just float for a while without ending up in the next county, the way you would on a real river.
Don’t get me wrong, there were lots of other nice things about Aruba.
But for me, it was the lazy river.
And I’m not alone.
If you go to a place with a lazy river, it’s quickly clear that a lot of other folks share your enthusiasm.
Which is great.
Until you all have the same vision of a golden afternoon under the blazing equatorial sun, reading your book…or talking about how cold it is in Minneapolis according to your sister, or about how Coach K really learned everything from Bobby Knight, or how you really really liked Hawaii best of all but it’s so expensive and so darn far.
Or whatever it is you imagine doing or talking about on a lazy river.
The closed and furrowed-browed people reading their iPhones in the middle of the water bewildered us all, so there was that, bringing the rest of us together.
But it was crowded. Lovely but crowded.
It was a couple of days into our visit that I noticed a modest sign posted at a few strategic points along the lazy river: “Thank you for allowing others to enjoy an easy flow.”
The necessity for that kind of management should be obvious enough.
That said, I appreciate its aspirational spirit, not only in calling us to be mindful of someone else’s “flow,” in the first place, but also in offering that care to them as a kind of magnanimous gesture in the spirit of neighborliness.
Sometimes it is in things undone—the zinger that remains unspoken, the parenting moment we pretend not to overhear, the reasonable complaint we don’t take to the manager—that we practice some of our deepest kindness.
In keeping custody of ourselves, we allow others to enjoy an easy — or an easier — flow.
As the end of Lent nears, I’m aware of how it has been a time to ask ourselves what that custody can look like, and what we need to do in order to keep it more firmly.
The power of our dependencies, be they small or not so small, can make these five weeks very hard for us.
But what might a firmer grip on them allow others to enjoy? What if we are not the most important beneficiaries of our own discipline?
What can we do that will allow others to enjoy an easy flow?