This month marks the 64th anniversary of my ordained ministries in The Episcopal Church, 58 of them before I finally retired full-time in 2017. Among the many tasks of those years, liturgical planning for Easter Day and Season services was certainly one of the more important for me. Looking back I think I got most of them right in their emphasis on the Resurrection and what it means to live in the holy reality and mission of the Risen Christ. Until this year!
In my current home parish of St. Mary’s Church in Ardmore, PA we are being served by a gifted young rector who arrived just months before the Covid pandemic hit us in March 2020. And St. Mary’s is his first parish as a rector. Yet he has guided us through two years of Zoom services with notable technical skills, pastoral sensitivity, and liturgical creativity, especially in Easter. Once we returned to “in person” services none of this has stopped. And this Easter he has folded into every Sunday liturgy a dimension that has warmed my baptismal heart. So much so that I could only exclaim to myself, “Why didn’t I ever think of this!”
Simply stated, the connection between the Risen Life of Christ and Baptism is made manifest and explicit at the outset of the service. Following the traditional Easter acclamation a Remembrance of Baptism begins the liturgy. It contains an opening prayer, three petitions, a summary prayer and then during the singing of the Gloria the congregation is generously sprinkled with holy water. It unfolds in about five minutes and continues with the usual Collect of the day and the appointed Lessons.
This Remembrance is not in the Book of Common Prayer or in any of the official alternative services. It’s a blend of Roman Catholic and Lutheran (ELCA) texts. In any future Episcopal worship revisions I believe something like it should be included. It’s a rite that would anchor the solemn and joyful realities of Baptism in the practice and mindfulness of the Church.
This concluding Remembrance prayer sets the tone for us to remember our own baptisms:
O God, through the waters of baptism, you have birthed us into the family of Christ, bathed us in forgiveness, and enlivened us in the Spirit, and for all these gifts, we are thankful. AMEN.
Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet, has Juliet ask, “What’s in a name?” In what’s become a famous soliloquy (Act 2, Scene ii), Juliet wonders why her family and Romeo’s should keep their love from being known.
Semiotics, the study of signs and symbols and their use in communication and meaning making, has been applied by philosophers, linguists, anthropologists, theologians, and others. Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1912) was a Swiss semiotician who worked in the subfield of semiology, focusing on the bilateral nature of the sign – the signifier and the signified. Saussure taught that words only have meaning in social context. What I say and think I mean only have meaning when you hear it and assign it value.
In The Princess Bride, a 1987 comedy-adventure film based on the 1973 book of the same name, Inigo Montoya says to Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Finnish academic Osmo Wiio’s somewhat satiric, yet accurate, laws of communication, state, “If communication can fail, it will.”
I live in Texas. Our Legislature meets every two years. In the last several sessions, one topic has held traction in the House and the Senate – anti-LGBTQ (especially anti-trans) legislation. Session after session, activists and advocates in the legislature, in the lobby, and in the public square have thwarted efforts to disenfranchise LGBTQ Texans. This year was different.
Texas, as of Friday 19 May 2023, is near enacting a law banning diversity offices in public universities. SB14 passed and will go to Gov Abbot, who says he will sign it. This bill bans minors from receiving trans-affirming medical care. The House has approved SB15 which bans transgender athletes from participating in sports based on gender. A bill that would have ended a law criminalizing homosexuality in Texas did not make it to the floor.
What’s in a name?
My name is Brandon. It hasn’t always been, but it is now.
He and She are signifiers of gender. The person to whom the pronoun refers is the signified. My pronouns are he/him. I am male.
How do you know what someone means when they use a word to describe a group of which you’re a part? Does the word really mean what you think it means?
Supporters of SB14, during the hearings, described transgender Texans as a “social contagion.”
Even Jesus’ Law of love:
43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.46 If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.
We enter a covenant with Jesus and reaffirm it again and again at Baptism:
I will follow the apostles’ teaching; I will be in community, break bread, pray; I will resist evil, repent, return; I will proclaim by word and example the Good News; I will seek and serve Christ in ALL PERSONS; I will LOVE my neighbor as myself; I will strive for justice and peace among all people; I will respect the dignity of every human being.
This love that Jesus teaches – of whose name we seem to have forgotten, whose signified is nearly lost, whose meaning seems absent these days – this love of Jesus we have allowed to fail to be communicated to our neighbors In Biblical Greek “love” is ἀγάπη (agape), considered the highest form of love – that between God and God’s Son – incarnational love – sacrificial love – perichoretic love – mysterious love. Nothing should be desired more or shared more than the love we receive from heaven.
When we promise to live baptismally, repeating those words everytime we support a newly baptized sibling in Christ, what are we signifying? What do we really mean? Do our words and actions toward all our neighbors, no matter their name, demonstrate the love of God – Three-in-One?
Several months ago, I returned to the gym for the first time since the pandemic started. It wasn’t easy. Not because I was physically incapable of resuming regular exercise, but because working out at the gym was no longer a daily practice. I made excuses not to go. However, as I eased into a new pattern of working out, I began to feel better. As I expanded my regimen, I felt my muscles firming up. I felt much better physically, mentally, and spiritually. And a bonus was my joyful reunion with many of my former “workout buddies.”
The church where I serve describes itself as a spiritual gym. It’s where we work out in ways that shape our character and our values. Just like physical muscles, our spiritual muscles call for specific exercises – such as worship, prayer, and Bible study – to stay in shape and stretch our faith.
Church is not only a place where we find the tools for our spiritual workout. It’s also where we find community to guide, support, and encourage us. Worshipping with fellow parishioners deepens our faith as we practice together what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Praying together transforms us and our church community.
A spiritual gym – like a physical gym – brings people together from different locations, generations, and life situations. We all are blessed with different gifts, which we share with one another, growing stronger together. We may even discover new gifts, which, in turn, are strengthened from learning and practicing – exercising – together.
And although our spiritual workouts transform our lives and community withinthe “gym,” they are primarily meant to prepare us for daily life outside the “gym,” in the world. Our spiritual workouts and mutual support strengthen us so that we can be Jesus’ hands and feet wherever God may lead us.
The Gospel for this week reminds us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). For many, Jesus’ promise seems laughable, as we have faced the isolation enforced by Covid prevention measures and now the reduced attendance many congregations are experiencing. The past few years have cramped our vision and promoted scarcity thinking. Fear cripples our imaginations, and perceiving abundance challenges our common sense.
In Isaiah 54:2 the prophet reminds the Israelites to think bigger: “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep” (The Message). Like Israelites returning from exile, we in the post-Covid church are called to widen our vision and our embrace. Open our doors to welcome unfamiliar people and experiences. Sharpen our vision to perceive who our supporters and our allies are. Be courageous to invite contributions – both monetary and intangible gifts. Partner with both modest givers and big spenders alike.
Last week’s Gospel story of two dispirited disciples walking to Emmaus has always invited my speculation: What was the “tell” that allowed the two breaking bread with Jesus to, at last, recognize him? When the Risen Christ broke the bread, did they catch a glimpse of the nail holes in his hands? Was it the distinctive way he blessed the bread, or broke it, or poured the cup of wine that tipped them off? Perhaps it was the way he said “Abba” as he asked God’s blessing for the meal? Or the gestures he used as he handed food and drink to the others at table with him?
I like to think that the real giveaway was his hospitality – the way he embodied the message of open-handed abundance as he presided at the meal. “Enough is as good as a feast.” All who dine with Christ experience abundant life.
Jesus challenges believers to see him in the people we encounter every day – the stranger on the road, the surprise visitor, the people at our table, even those who are not our favorite companions. Where we see Jesus, we are called to see the abundance that he brings. As we widen our vision and our embrace, we enlarge the site of our tent – we make plenty good room, and shift our perception from scarcity to a heightened awareness of gift and opportunity. For us personally and for our society, our recovery – from pandemic, from hard-fought elections, from the dangers of everyday living and the fear of the unknown – may well depend on our ability to incarnate the abundance Christ promises. “Risen Lord, be known to us in the breaking of the bread.”
I live in a town named for Mark on a river named for Mark.
Archaeological surveys show that people have inhabited this land for around 12,000 years, and Spanish settlers, under the leadership of conquistadors and missionaries, settled here around 1648.
The names of the river and town recognize Spanish colonialism – San Marcos; the name of the church recognizes the subsequent Anglo invasion – St. Mark’s. But what became of the indigenous names?
My friends Mario Garza and Maria Rocha strive for justice and peace every day by remembering and speaking the language of their people – the people of this land – the Coahuiltecan People, by educating others about the history of this land and its people, and by living their own heritage as modern Coahuiltecans authentically.
The Feast of St. Mark is a time when our church gathers at the San Marcos River for baptisms, blessings, and barbecue (actually fried chicken, but I like alliteration).
As we promise together to strive for justice and peace among all, and pledge to respect the dignity of the Earth and every human being – when we gather at the river to pray with St Mark and all the Saints – may we remember those who predate us and our names.
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’” (John 20:21). This verse, from the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter, has been my earworm this past week. Jesus appears to his disciples after his resurrection as they huddle together in fear behind locked doors and speaks these comforting – and challenging – words to his disciples.
Jesus’ words are also for us, his 21st-century disciples. Our baptismal promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” calls us to leave the shelter of our churches and homes. We are called to go forth into the world as ministers of the resurrection – ministers of hope.
This message is echoed in a timely blog by Prince Rivers for the Alban Institute, Go beyond the sanctuary. Rivers reminds us that the number of those worshiping in church is not an indication of church health. Instead, health is reflected in the ministry that takes place outside of the church building and in the wider community. This is lay ministry. This is ministry in daily life. And, as Rivers writes, “The post-resurrection narratives in the Gospels clearly point us to ministry beyond the sanctuary.”
When Jesus sends us into our broken world to be ministers of love, compassion, justice, reconciliation, we are also sent to serve as ministers of hope. And where we are sent is as individual as each of us is.
Yet, we may wonder whether we have the tools to proclaim the Good News by word and example. We may doubt whether we are sufficiently prepared to do so. Here’s where regular worship and Christian community support us. Worship and Christian fellowship offer means for easing those doubts. And, as we learn from Thomas’s experience in the upper room, doubt nourished by curiosity can lead to revelation, transformation, and empowerment.
So, during this Eastertide, I invite you to consider how you might serve as a minister of the resurrection, offering hope through your love, care, and concern to those you encounter in your daily life.
For Christians, Holy Week is a faith journey into death. Each year, as the culmination of our Lenten pilgrimage, we gather to remember the events of Good Friday. We walk with Jesus to death’s door. There, in the valley of the shadow of death, we discover God, not blocking our entrance but walking with us through death’s fearsome portal. And ultimately we discover that God’s nearer presence opens us to new life.
The story of the path through death and into new life is recapitulated again and again in the natural world. In John 12:2, Jesus assures us, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” Similarly, we can experience the cycle of death and resurrection multiple times in our life span.
Why would Christians choose to re-live that death-and-resurrection story annually through the liturgies of Holy Week, repeatedly through the rite of baptism, and metaphorically through the Eucharist? We go there for our liberation. As the Rev. Dr. Michael Piazza wrote in his Liberating Word blog, “We are all a part of the brokenness of the world. Our job is to work every day to also be part of its healing. [We are offered] an invitation to go willingly into that wilderness of introspection, examination, honesty, confession, and repentance. Only then can we know the redemption and resurrection that already is ours.”
“Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life” we proclaim in celebrating the Eucharist. When we have eyes to see, restoration testifies to God’s resurrection power at work in the world.
In the Baptismal Covenant (BCP p. 292) Episcopalians affirm, “we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.” SSJE brother Curtis Almquist writes, “In our baptismal vows, we profess that we ‘have died with Christ and are raised with him.’ Jesus promises us resurrection power. We have to die before we rise, before we can claim his resurrection power. Again and again, we must die.”
Resurrection is not for the living. Resurrection is for the dead. Death is the precondition for newness of life. That’s the reason for our repeatedly making that liturgical journey: to en-courage us – to equip us for both death and resurrection.
One of the final prayers on Good Friday in Episcopal churches offers the reminder, “…let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new…” (BCP p. 280) That same prayer is echoed at the Easter Vigil. At every ordination, the presentation of the candidate ends with that same prayer (BCP pp. 515, 528, 540).
Cast down and raised up. Growing old and being made new. Dying and rising. An order confirmed in creation. A promise incarnated by Jesus of Nazareth. A way of life for those who seek to follow him.
My four-year-old friend and I, along with his mother who is the Director of Children and Family Ministries here, went to the local Christian bookstore yesterday to look for craft supplies for the upcoming Palm Sunday children’s formation lesson.
The mother and I were chatting as we walked from the parking lot to the store when the child cried out, “I don’t want to walk all the way to Jerusalem!”
She and I stopped and laughed and hugged him. We reassured him that we were walking to the store in plain-sight in front of us, the one he’d been to with us many times before. I asked, “What do you know about Jerusalem from stories we tell?”
He said, “It’s too far away to go because Jesus was there, and we don’t have a time machine,” with big tears in his eyes.
“Is Jesus far away now?” I asked.
“No,” he said, perking up a little bit.
“How do you know?” (This is a question I’ve started asking him because he asks me most of the time when I say something, especially if it’s an answer to a question he asked me.)
He made the Sign of the Cross and said, “God loves me, so I can love everybody.”
“So where’s Jesus?”
With his rediscovered joy, he assisted his mother and me in selecting craft objects for the church busy bags with an Easter theme – scratch art crosses and eggs, sticker craft scenes of the tomb, little coloring books of Jesus’ last week – and while we gathered supplies for the art response to the Palm Sunday teaching, he got more and more excited about walking to Jerusalem. His understanding of metaphor grows more each day. As we gathered different colors of felt to make “cloaks” to lay along a cardboard “road” and told him the story of Jesus coming into Jerusalem, he found a donkey craft to contribute. He found some pieces of fur and asked if there were other animals on the way to Jerusalem. He wanted to know if there were rocks and how we would put rocks on the road with the cloaks.
When we left the store with our supplies, he asked me to tell the story about Jesus and the apple. “The one that the owl tells,” he said.
It took me a minute, but then I caught up with him.
He has a Cuddle Barn (™) Bible Story Talking Owl. One of the Stories the mama owl tells her baby is from Genesis. After our “walk to Jerusalem,” my little four-year-old friend wanted to hear me tell the story of Genesis, and he so aptly aligned the Christ with the Father and the Spirit.
My telling of Genesis differed a little from the Owl’s, included some liberation and feminist and queer interpretation, and had a sillier serpent than that to which most people are probably accustomed. I also included a little lesson especially for him about why we keep our clothes on at school linked to the nakedness Adam and Eve learned when they ate the apple and how it wasn’t so much about being naked as it was about listening, trusting, and loving God.
As the disciples walked with Jesus to Jerusalem, in support of his subtle-yet-not-so-subtle protest of corruption and injustice, they listened to and retold his stories/parables. They talked with each other about the metaphor and meaning of all that he said and did. May our Passover remembrance this year, our reenactment of his Palm Sunday journey, our celebration of his Empty Tomb, be signs of Justice moreso now than ever before.
There is something self-evident in learning, unlearning, then relearning and unlearning again as we grow in body, mind, and spirit. It is both innately and intentionally developmental. For example, at what age did we un-learn that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny were NOT the sources of gifts and chocolate eggs. And in what grade in school did we finally master, after much difficult effort, how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide.
The 19th century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel elevated learning and unlearning in his famous dialectic that seeks a higher level of truth with the proposition of a thesis, vigorously tested by an antithesis, resulting in a new and stronger synthesis. Learning, unlearning, and learning again. Mundanely summarized it’s called life and living.
So is Christian life and living. It’s seeking and believing, doubting, and searching, trusting, and daring, suffering and enduring, radically loving and sacrificially serving. Liturgically it’s Lent through Easter. Theologically it’s death and resurrection. Prophetically it’s profound compassion and enduring justice. Sacramentally it’s the Church community’s affirmation, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” (BCP, p. 308)
Christian scripture contains many accounts of this learn-unlearn-relearn dynamic but probably none more dramatic than the apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. In one blinding moment he is confronted and flipped from being the ardent persecutor of persons in the Jesus movement (there was no church as such at the time) to starting on his faith journey of becoming a believer, disciple, proclaimer, and missionary of the Gospel. And then there is the episode of Zaccheus, a hated tax collector, who Jesus summons and instructs to prepare a meal for him in what can only be understood as an act of an all-embracing, inclusive hospitality, a sign of what God’s kingdom on earth ought to be about. Again, learn-unlearn-relearn.
Another way of understanding this pattern and process of life and living especially in these contemporary times of social conflict, political unrest, and debilitating division is the word “reckoning.” Our nation, our local communities, our social institutions including our churches are being called into account, a reckoning, for a radical unlearning and relearning of their histories, their active roles, and complicities in what for centuries have been entrenched systems of injustice, cruelty, and genocide – most often through the distorted prism of white people’s sense of privilege, superiority, and power. Radical, disturbing, and uncomfortable reckonings must be made for many collective behaviors: slavery and racism, including against indigenous persons; misogyny and targeting sexual orientation and gender identity; anti-semitism; reliance on guns and the resulting killing fields of America; and willful blindness to poverty and the poor.
To be sure this reckoning has started. But for the people who have been “marked as Christ’s own for ever” it is a constant faith imperative.
We’re just two weeks into Lent. Whether we’ve given something up or taken something on, the discipline is just beginning to pinch. Or maybe we haven’t yet settled on a Lenten discipline. Br. Jim Woodrum of the Society of St. John the Evangelist offers this advice:
It may be that there is a laundry list you have prayerfully assembled to tackle this Lent. You are not going to get to everything. Pick one or two things and then stick with those. Hold these intentions as a focus of your prayer with Jesus and ask him to heal and transfigure them. In this way we can turn a season of discipline into a lifetime of discipleship.
Lent as a season of healing and transfiguration seems almost counter-intuitive. Many of us have been taught to look at Lent through the purple lens of sacrifice, mortification of the flesh, fasting, and self-denial. Though all of those practices are intended to be life-giving, the word “transfiguration” calls up images of Mt. Tabor and Jesus’s radiance, not the sackcloth and ashes of Lent.
For engineers, “roadwork” means tearing up what’s damaged and re-laying a serviceable road – healing the highway. For athletes, “roadwork” means conditioning, putting in hours and miles to build stamina and strength. It’s a discipline that prevents injury and imbeds essentials of movement.
For me, in my walk as a Christian, Lent is the season of “roadwork,” in both senses. I am grateful for several “mountain top” experiences along my life journey. And I have to admit that Jesus’s deflating “you have to leave the mountaintop” has proved, for me, more life-giving than the flash of revelation. Not just because “all good things must come to an end.” More because in the valley, on the journey, through the daily grind and the ebb and flow of everyday life, that is where the lessons become real, and the habits are formed. That is where the durable transformation happens.
In the process of faith, in the journey of Lent, through our time spent in communities of faith, we are TRANSFORMED. In the waters of baptism, through the hearing of the Gospel alongside our siblings in faith, through the Bread and Wine made Body and Blood, we are changed to our very core. Transformed from sinners into God’s beloved, made holy and righteous by the One who meets us with forgiveness and grace.
The mountaintops feel great; they are respite for the moment. But it is along the way of faith that God is making us into new creations, into the people that we were first created to be in Christ.
May our faith communities, like the waters of baptism, immerse us in the discipline of Lent, marinating us in Jesus’s way of healing and transformation.