15 April 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” (Luke 24)
I find that trash day is quite the drama in Albuquerque. It all begins the night before, as one hears the thump-thump-thump of plastic trash bins being wheeled down driveways to the street, like battalions of soldiers taking up positions for the next day’s battle, and by morning what had been a clear street is lined with an infantry of blue and black containers waiting pensively for their fate.
Then in the distance, one hears the roar of the approaching garbage truck, engine gunning, then brakes squealing, and the tell-tale thud of a bin being violently grabbed by its mechanical arms, like those of a mighty dragon. The bin is then hurled into the air to be violently upended so that it contents come flying out into the yawning receptacle of the truck.
There is such a brutal finality to it all: items that we have deemed to be of no further use are first discarded into the bins, and then from there they are hurled into the bowels of a truck and quickly carried away, never to be seen again. All that’s left are the scattered, now empty bins lying haphazardly along the edge of the street, like the dead and wounded on a great battlefield.
In the ancient world, crucifixion was similarly a way of discarding something that was no longer wanted, except that in this case it was a human being. A person was hung up to die, discarded, and then unceremoniously thrown into a common grave, like a landfill. So Jesus, having been tried and rejected by his accusers, was similarly hung up on a cross to die at Golgotha (which was itself the trash heap of Jerusalem), with the intent that once he was dead, his body would be thrown out with the rest of the detritus of the city.
Except that … it doesn’t turn out that way, does it? The one who had been “despised and rejected” (as Isaiah foretold) returns to his disciples from the cross, speaking words of peace.
Now, we tend to focus our thoughts about this return on the miraculous and even divine intervention that seems to have taken place in this event.
But today’s gospel wants us to refocus our attention on the human element. Jesus is determined that his disciples realize that it is him—not a ghost, not an apparition, not a mystical vision—but truly him, in flesh and blood. And so by way of simple demonstration he asks them for something to eat, and they give him a piece of fish, which he eats as any ordinary human being would.
And hidden in that gesture, is something of the greatest importance that can easily escape our attention amidst all the trumpets and flowers of Easter. The resurrection is not just about some godlike occurrence that happened to Jesus, but it is an affirmation of the reality and destiny of human nature itself. For when Jesus carries our physical nature with him into death, and then continues to carry it beyond the grave to the other side, he embodies for us the message that we human beings are not bound simply by the constraints and limitations of our physical mortality. We are not a commodity.
Rather, we human beings have a meaning, and a purpose, which is bound up with the inextinguishable life of Jesus. And this life, as John’s epistle puts it this morning, is nothing less than love itself, given to us through Jesus. Our meaning and purpose is to love, to love endlessly, to love until it hurts—and through Jesus we know that love has no bounds, and most certainly not the grave. As one person remarked to me recently, in offering assistance to our immigrant family, “I think the measure of our worth is how we support each other, and everything else is speculation.”
This conviction that our life is given meaning by how we love one another is, of course, precisely what Jesus taught his disciples at the Last Supper, and it is the core of what we commemorate each time we come to this table: the duty and gift of loving one another, of sacrificing for one another, of standing up for one another, of suffering with one another.
And so, this love that we celebrate at this table, is what gives us hope in our struggles, courage in our fears, and perseverance in our challenges. For in the risen Jesus, we know they do not lead to the dead end of death (so to speak), but through his life they are woven into a web of commitment and concern that stretches both backward and forward in time.
It is as if the resurrected Jesus says to us, “There is more to you than you think,” just as there was more to him than his disciples had imagined. And if that is true then it is also true that through us, there is more to the world than we think. Or, to put it more bluntly: the world doesn’t have to be, the way it is now.
As Rowan Williams puts it in his little study of resurrection, The Sign and the Sacrifice:
The way things are is not the way things are destined to be. Under God, with wisdom, discernment and courage, you can find out what changes are possible, because the world can change. God can be known and served: human beings can live differently: the body of Christ shows us there are ways of living together as human beings that are not tribal, violent, exclusive and anxious. (p. 89)
And so, there is a “fundamental fearlessness” that comes from the resurrection gospel, which is a message that we are very much in need of hearing in these days. In himself, Jesus gathers up all our doubts, our fears, our anxieties, even our death—and returns them to us when we least expect it, transformed through a loving embrace and the simple phrase, “Peace be with you.” In those four words, who we are, and who we hope to become, is affirmed, blessed, encouraged and refreshed. So may Christ’s peace be with you all. Amen.
St Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Second Sunday in Eastertide – April 8, 2018
Karen Cobb, preaching
It would have been easier to run away. It surely would have been safer to hide til the coast was clear. There are days still when it takes every ounce of courage to just keep moving, head down, alone in the crowd, stumbling toward God knows what. It is exhausting work. The gospel of John doesn’t say where Thomas was, that Resurrection morning when Mary ran from the tomb. He was missing in action when the weary, frightened, grieving band was stunned as Jesus stood among them, announcing, “Peace be with you!”
There is also palpable lack of fanfare a week later when Thomas returns to the group. No “Where you been, Bro? You won’t believe what you missed!” Where was his community when he needed them most? It is no wonder that he cried out in desperation, “Unless I put my finger in the print of the nails or place my hand in his side, I will not believe!”
Church history tells that eventually, Thomas’s faith culminated in taking the mission of Christ to India… but that’s a whole other story. For today, the gospel encounter with Thomas is a resuscitation, not of Jesus, but of the faith community. It shocks overwhelmed followers back into faithful, dependable rhythm as witnesses to the incarnational word. This story, often referred to as Doubting Thomas is in fact the account of how the disciples got their groove back.
Even Mary recognizes Jesus only when he calls her by name. He tells her “Don’t cling to me. I must ascend to my Father in heaven.” The Disciples rejoice when he stands among them, shows them his wounds and breathes on them, much the same way Yahweh breathes life into Adam. Jesus offers the same physical proof to Thomas, ready to meet Thomas in his demands. However, the text does not record that Thomas laid hands on Jesus that night. His faith was not restored by touching Jesus but by seeing him and hearing him face to face. All of these disciples respond with confessions of devotion, “My Lord and my God.” It’s our story too.
I know many of you as friends for years of journeying together at St. Michael’s. Almost twenty one years in fact. But today is a new experience for me in this place, proclaiming gospel on a Sunday morning. As for many of you, Holy Week is a rich and spiritually cathartic time for me, culminating in a glorious Resurrection celebration just a week ago. Like many of you, I joined in the liturgical ritual of the agape meal and the foot washing, the prayers, the stations of the cross, and pilgrimage as a way of deepening and focusing my attention on the Passion of Christ.
Another regular part of my Holy Week rhythm is to listen again to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”, usually on Good Friday. I know, I know, I’m a child of the sixties. I was seven years old when my parents took me to see a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. I fell in love with Jesus that night when I heard Mary Magdalene’s plaintive song, “ I Don’t Know How to Love Him”. It occurs to me that my spiritual identity is closely bound to the devotion poured out by Mary. Although I hope I have matured a bit spiritually since age seven, I still resonate with Mary, who is often misunderstood, often maligned, her witness dismissed as an idle tale. But, she is also faithful and loyal in pouring out all that she has to glorify Jesus. Whenever I hear that song, it still gets me.
Most days I like to say I’m preaching without words in my calling as a psychotherapist, offering a listening ear, a metaphor, toys, or art materials to help clients find meaning and healing, encouraging their expression of loss, reframing and healing conflicts and naming their truth. I recognize many of the feelings portrayed in this morning’s gospel: grief, fear, confusion, longing, anger, defense, and self-protection. They walk into my office every day. These feelings are also familiar furnishings of my own interior castle. I recognize these human feelings not only in Thomas but in his community and in myself and in you. This gospel lesson is everything about the community of Christ, then and now, in answering the question, “How do you know what you know?”
What some of you may not know is that before I was a therapist, I was a pastor for twenty-three years. It’s been about thirty years since my first sermon on this gospel passage before the Presbytery of San Gabriel where I was first approved for ordination. I can say with some certainly that the process of preaching is no less exhilarating… and terrifying than it was way back then. It is one thing, to walk and study and pray and sit at Jesus’ feet in adoration. I imagine his followers felt that way as well, enchanted and convicted by glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. It is quite another endeavor to stand naked in your beliefs before those whom you love and respect and proclaim your partial understanding of the mystery of God’s redemptive love for the world.
As safe as it might feel to stay in my own head, locked in my own room, safe in my own protected world view, that is not all I am called to be and do. In my dining room I have a poster that reads, “A ship is a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” It may have felt exhilarating for those first disciples to be hand-picked for Jesus, but I imagine it was terrifying to imagine life without him. What do we do now?
The journey of moving from earthly incarnation and ministry, through the betrayal and abandonment, the horrors of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension presented in the gospels is hard to take in all at once. The synoptic gospels of Mathew Mark and Luke describe Jesus’ earthly ministry and the Acts of the Apostles portray the life of the young post resurrection church. But, in John these events are compacted into a few chapters. No wonder the disciples are like sheep in the headlights. The doors are shut, they are in the midst of traumatized grief, and now, Jesus is among them, breathing life into them, and telling them God’s mission of redemption now rests on their shoulders. Wait, what?
The issue here is not Jesus’ resuscitation. It is ours. Remember the opening words of the gospel of John? “In the beginning was the word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” According to the Gospel of John, in the space of a few verses, from Easter morning to Easter evening, Jesus has ascended to the Father, completing his incarnational reunion with God and returning to breathe new life into his followers who will continue his work of transmitting peace and forgiveness of the Living Word.
The story of salvation is not complete with the empty tomb. Our discipleship is not complete if it ends with adoration, denial and falling asleep. Thomas was not the only one missing, who needed to hear empowering news. The early disciples did. Mary, Peter, John and all the others did. The early church to whom John preached needed to hear good news, as they hid from a splintered Jewish community. Practically none had witnessed the resurrection. The signs of belief were no longer sight or touch or even hearing one’s name, but rather the witness of those whose lives were irrevocably changed by encounters with the living Christ. The Church of Jesus Christ was born in that Upper Room that night by the breath of Christ, giving the disciples the power and courage to transmit peace and forgiveness as the Father had given it to him.
It is our gift this morning as well. So, receive the peace of Christ and the breath of the Holy Spirit. Go ahead, close your eyes and let it sink in, a deep, cleansing and renewing breath. You are forgiven. You are not bound by your past. You are a new creation. You are freed for new life you can only imagine. What will you do with it? Now consider who else needs to hear this, in your life, in our community, in our world. Who is missing? Open your eyes and look to your left and to your right. Peace be upon you. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet, have come to believe. Amen.
1 April 2018
Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised; he is not here.” (Mark 16)
In a 1969 essay on religious pluralism, the American Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote that, “the common challenge for all religions today is to resist the rising tide of nihilism.” Nihilism: the belief that nothing is of intrinsic value or worth. On this Easter Sunday, I would like to sharpen the focus of that observation to say, that the most urgent challenge for all people of faith right now, is to resist the increasingly strident and global attack upon the dignity of the human person.
We see signs of the ebbing of our ability to value one another everywhere. Ideologues of both the right and the left look upon one another as unworthy even of a hearing. Political leaders cynically scapegoat the foreigner and the immigrant. Movements driven by supremacist creeds rally in the public square. The terrorist with his bombs regards other people only as instruments of his own cause. Children—teenagers—marching in the streets to advocate for their own safety are ridiculed by those who would suppress their voice. Citizens ready to risk their life for their country are denied the opportunity to do so simply because of their gender identity.
But what, you may ask, has all this to do with Easter? Well, everything, actually. When Jesus died on the cross, he suffered what is perhaps the most dehumanizing form of execution humanity has ever fashioned. And yet … hidden within that pitiful spectacle, another and more powerful force was at work that could not be put down or defeated: the strength of God’s love surging through him even in what appeared to be his utter defeat.
The physical Jesus dies on the cross, but the mystery is that the spirit within him did not stop loving us even then. In Jesus we find that God is not exhausted by what we do, even putting him to death. It turns out that we are powerless to change God’s mind, which is focused upon us purely for life and for mercy. So on the third day, the love that is the life-force of Jesus comes roaring back into the lives of those who had counted him as lost, simply because God cannot do otherwise.
And suddenly the picture comes clear: Jesus’ death on the cross is a bit like the cross-section that we might take of the trunk of a tree, where we can see and count the rings. But the cross-section gives us only an intimation of the whole picture: the veins we see there, running circularly around the tree, in fact also run longitudinally up and down the tree from bottom to top, just as God’s creative love runs through human history from beginning to end.
In the historical Jesus, we see only a cross-section of that love. At first, it seems to come to an end in his death, but then when that life and love reasserts itself in his resurrection, we realize that Jesus is not limited by historical time after all, but is the one about whom scripture says, “He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” In short: Jesus’ resurrection is not a miraculous resuscitation of a human corpse, hard for us to imagine, but a revelation of the metaphysical constant of God’s love, wondrous for us to contemplate, radiating uninterrupted through the cosmos much like the elemental energy from the moment of creation.
And what has this to do with human dignity? Well, if God created us human beings in the divine image and likeness, it was to live in a reciprocal relationship, mirroring back to God the same love with which God loves us. When we look into the face of another human being therefore—no matter who or what they are—we see there nothing less than what God does: the likeness of God’s own self. And if it is God we see, then that person is truly holy, worthy of every dignity and respect we can bestow. To do anything else, is in effect to curse God. As Abraham Heschel put it, “To denigrate another human being, is to be blasphemous toward God.”
Easter, then, is the ultimate celebration and consecration of the dignity of the human person, because it is the vindication of the power of the love through which we were created, and by which we are sustained. In what Jesus suffered from us on the cross, and in the still stronger power of his love for us as it reasserts itself in his resurrection, we encounter the decisive truth of who we are: creatures made holy by the divine nature God has bestowed upon us, and unsparingly loves in us.
There at the front of the church, you see a multitude of icons of saints, and angels, and of Christ himself. They cumulatively weave together the human form we bear, with the divine image in which we are created. On this Easter Day, these images are a bold and unequivocal restatement of the primordial truth which we as Christian people hold: that all people are created equal in God’s image, and that they are therefore endowed with an inalienable holiness and dignity that cannot be desecrated, except by violating Christ himself. In that regard, resurrection must include insurrection, whenever and however that dignity is defiled. Amen.
30 March 2018
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world.” (John)
Let’s start with a question: In what sense could Jesus be said to be a migrant?
As the dictionary defines it, to migrate simply means to move from one country or place to another, often in search of some relief or change. On a day like Good Friday, therefore, the question is not frivolous, for the whole of Holy Week is marked by Jesus’ movement, from triumphal entry into Jerusalem as hero, to condemned criminal on the cross; from the intimacy of a Passover meal with his disciples, to his betrayal and arrest in the garden; or, even at the most basic of levels, his movement from a prophetic life of teaching and healing, to his humiliation and death on the cross.
It is striking that throughout the Bible, migration is an absolutely consistent motif. God for example expels Adam and Even from Eden. Noah is set adrift in the ark. Then later, God calls Abraham out of the land of Ur to journey to a new land; subsequently Jacob and his sons follow Joseph to Egypt to escape famine; then Israelites have to escape their slavery by fleeing with Moses to Sinai; still later, the people of Judah are forced into Babylonian captivity, and only much later do they finally return home from their diaspora to Jerusalem. On and on it goes.
And when Jesus himself is born, the gospel narratives go out of their way to emphasize his migrant status: Joseph takes his young wife from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of his ancestors, where she gives birth to her child as a homeless pobrecita; the family then almost immediately has to flee as refugees into Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath, and are able to return home only after the king dies; and as the young man Jesus begins his public ministry, he is driven like an exile by Satan into the wilderness, after which he begins to refer to himself as “the Son of Man who has no place to lay his head.”
And as last Sunday’s epistle reminded, there is yet a further and more cosmic dimension to Jesus as migrant: as the great Christ hymn in Philippians puts it, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant.” Jesus migrates from his divine origins into human form, entering into the role of servant when it is in fact he who is the Lord of all. Jesus lives in exile among us.
Now, there are several threads that one might follow to trace the significance of this idea of Jesus the migrant, or Jesus migrator. One thread would be that it puts a whole new meaning into how we serve and receive him, in serving and receiving the immigrant among us—for Jesus is himself the primordial migrant. There would be much to say about that.
But the thread I want to trace here this evening is rather different: that as a migrant, God in Christ is never static, never settled, never at home. Jesus is always in motion, moving from place to place, from one life changing encounter to another. Perhaps that is even one way of looking at the meaning of the cross: Jesus moves through it from the life of violence and injustice that we know now, into a different life marked by peace and dignity on the other side (which we will describe on Easter Sunday as his resurrection). So if we are to be followers of Jesus, then it means to journey with him, to participate in this immigration with him (if you will), from one life into another.
We are, in effect, strangers and sojourners in this life, but Jesus is leading us toward another land, a promised land—a pattern of human living which he calls the Kingdom of God. As one of the earliest Christian texts put it (The Letter of Diognetus, from the 2nd or maybe 3rd century), “[Christians] live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and yet endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their homeland, and yet every homeland is a foreign land [because at heart they are refugees from their true homeland, which is with God].”
Now this vision of being in constant motion as followers of Jesus, of being bound toward some new life, is rather counter-intuitive. We tend to look toward faith and religion as something that we seek out to give us as sense of security, certainty, and stability. But as the deus migrator, Jesus calls us out of and beyond all that toward its exact opposite: in following him, we embrace risk, complexity, and unpredictability. But we also gain wonder, joy, and courage.
There on the altar, there is an icon by the local Franciscan Robert Lentz, sometimes known as “Christ the Refugee.” In it, you see the figure of Jesus on the other side of some strands of barbed wire, pulling them apart with his own, wounded hands. Our first instinct, on seeing the icon, may be to read it as depicting Christ imprisoned, a refugee caught inside some sort of jail.
But if you pay close attention to Jesus’ gaze—and in an icon, the gaze is always all important—it becomes less and less apparent that it is Jesus who is imprisoned. His gaze of compassion, mercy, and longing seems to suggest that it is we who are behind the barbed wire, and he is on the outside looking in. Or perhaps both things are true at once.
Through this ambiguity, the icon of Christ the Refugee speaks powerfully to us of the prisons which hold us—and him—captive. Prisons of personal privilege and national identity; prisons of class status and party establishment; prisons of selfish self-interest and personal security.
What if the message of Good Friday, spoken to us both by Christ on the cross and Christ on the other side of the barbed wire, is an encouragement to break out of those prisons, and to become a migrant with him: to follow him into a new country, a new vision of life, a new and more compassionate understanding of ourselves. What if the ultimate purpose of the cross, is to make of us, displaced migrants? Amen.
 I am indebted for the idea of God as migrant to Peter C. Phan, “Doing Christian Theology in the Age of Migration,” a paper presented at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, NJ, February 6, 2018.
 Cyril Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 48-49.