Why is this night different from all other nights?
This is the question asked during the Passover seder. On Thursday we heard the of the preparation for the Passover, where the Israelites were told to prepare by sacrificing a lamb and painting its blood on the door posts of the homes so that the final plague of the death of first born would Passover the homes of the Israelites.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Beloved in Christ: On this most holy night, in which our Lord Jesus passed over from death to life, the Church invites her members, dispersed throughout the world, to linger in vigil and prayer. For this is the Passover of the Lord in which, by virtue of our baptism into his death, into the hope of his resurrection, we celebrate the New Life we have received by his Mercy, awaiting the time when we may gather again around your holy altar.
And with these words begins the Great Vigil of Easter. A careful look at what is printed in the Book of Common Prayer will show that we have adapted it for our current situation, but make no mistake. This is the Passover of the Lord. This is the Christians celebration of when Jesus Christ passed over from death to life.
The Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ is the fundamental event for our community- just as the Passover/Exodus event was and is the fundamental event for the Jewish people. They are both about deliverance, they are both about the miracle of God saving the people from certain death.
Central to this service of the Easter Vigil is the lighting of the Easter fire and the entrance of light into the darkened church. We light the Paschal candle that symbolizes the light of the resurrected and Christ and will burn at all services from now through the Day of Pentecost.
So why is this night different from all other nights. That song, the Exsultet- the first song of Easter that sings to the light says:
This is the night, when you brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt, and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.
This is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and are restored to grace and holiness of life.
This is the night, when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave
This is the night we celebrate Resurrection. We read in the gospel that Mary and Mary Magdalen went to the tomb on Easter Morning. So perhaps we think that the Resurrection happened in the early hours of just before dawn. Actually, we don’t really know what the actual time was. But we do know this: Christ broke the bonds of death and hell and rose victorious from the grave.
On Good Friday we mourned and grieved. I invited us to consider the innocence we have lost and the things we mourn and grieve as a result of this current pandemic. We are all mourning or grieving something. We greive for the sins that weigh us down. We grieve in the crucifixion and death of Christ; we mourn for those we love but see no longer, we morn for the lost opportunities. But not matter the girefs we carry as we mourn not being able to gather in church; not being able to gather with family and friends in larger groups; having to stay at home or work at home, the resurrection reminds us that grief and loss are not the end. That joy can be ours and as such this night IS different from all other nights.
When we renew our Baptismal vows we are struck by the way our new life is cast: fellowship and prayer, resisting of evil, proclaiming the Good News, respecting the dignity of every person, these all are part of our new life in the risen Christ.
And it is in the risen life of Christ that we live. The Easter Vigil may be an aspect of the rich heritage and tradition of Christian worship that has been with us for more than 1800 years, but we are not here to simply light some candles, read the bible and pray a little.
This service does not happen because we know what happened at the Tomb when the women first arrived. Easter is an invitation for us to discover what this event means for us in our lives, in the lives of others and in the world.
Certainly, there is a part of us that wants to know what Easter is all about - about why or how the resurrection took place. And there is nothing wrong with the very real and human desire to understand what happened- what happened to the soul of the Rabbi from Nazareth when he breathed his last; what happened when the stone was rolled into place and the body lay in the linen bands of death; what happened to the body of Jesus who now stands outside the tomb and speaks to the women.
Tonight is a night we declare victory over death. This is a time to meet the One who changes everything.
Tonight is when we proclaim “Alleluia Christ is Risen and we say the Lord is Risen in deed Alleluia.” We shout it from the roof tops that Jesus Christ is alive- that death does not have the final word.
We believe that Christ is alive and that one day he will return in his second coming. Until that time WE then are he Body of Christ, we are Chrsit’s representatives on this earth. We are that community of the faithful are called to be the very living presence of Christ in the world. Our joyful task is to tell one another and the world that God is real and at work in the world. Whever it is we are we are to give thanks for the ways God’s presence is made known. When we proclaim and live our lives with compassion and mercy; when we uphold and defend the dignity of every human being regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or political affiliation, or economic status; when we strive to heal the wounds of our earth and its resources we live out the Easter message.
The imagery of the Easter vigil is the imagery of God’s dream and our place in it. Yes, these times and this world seem dark and foreboding. We live in uncertain times but it is a place that the Church has been before. And into this darkness comes a light.
The Light of Christ.
and once this light pierces the darkness the darkness cannot exist. Together, wherever we are, we hold the light of Christ- each of us a beacon of hope for the a dark and dreary world. We have encountered the risen Christ here tonight and our lives are different as a result. Nothing is the same.
So it was for the women, nothing was the same. The tomb is empty and they run and tell the others. They go on to share the stories of the transformational power of Christ. So it is for us as well. Easter ISN’T something we remember. It’s something we live and breathe. How will you live out the resurrected life? How will you become that evidence of living God?
I have to say, there is a part of this that doesn’t feel real. What I mean is that it’s Good Friday, but it doesn’t feel like Good Friday.
Sure the altar is bare. The crosses are draped with black. We are reading the Passion Gospel, but in this moment, there are but two of us here- Angie our organist and me.
On Good Friday, we should be here at the foot of the cross, praying in wonderment about this instrument of torture and death- imagining that we are among the crowd who shouted “Crucify him.” Among the crowds who lined the streets to taunt and throw excrement at the Jesus. No longer celebrated with palms and shouts of “Hosanna!” he is bloodied and beaten, forced to carry the weight of death itself, then nailed to it and lifted high among common thieves.
Hail King of the Jews, comes the mockery from the crowd with an anonymity that rivals cyber bullies on the internet.
Today should be a day of grief. But the church is empty- and I know it’s going to be empty tomorrow and the day after that.
We have been told to stay in our homes. Even more so now, we have been told that we shouldn’t be out at night between 11pm and 5am unless we’re going to work or the hospital or are a first responder. And that’s ok because I’ve always said that generally nothing good happens after 10pm.
So we are all isolated. And even though we are with our families… we find that we are alone.
And in a strange and peculiar way, on this Good Friday, this makes sense. Jesus was alone. All of his core disciples ran away, but some, Mary, wife of Cleopas and Mary Magdalene were there at the foot of the cross, but as he hung there dying, there was no one else hold him up, pray for him, call him. If they did from below they risked the ire of the crowd. In Matthew’s version of the Passion Jesus, says Eli, Eli Lema Sabacthani- which is my God my God why have you forsaken me?”
And as Jesus was alone on the cross, and as we are alone in our homes, maybe those words of Jesus have also crossed our lips, perhaps we wonder if God has forsaken the world in the midst of a pandemic. I don’t think Good Friday is the day to preach on the nuanced question of theodicy or how we reconcile the goodness of God with presence of evil and sickness in the world.
Today is a day about grief. And today is a day we not only grieve for our Lord, but we must also grieve what we have lost. For some of our students, it’s the routine of school, of clubs and sports, and prom and graduation; for others of us it’s going to gym or the “Y;” to kanikapila with our Ukulele group, gather or to chop vegetables and cook soup; serve outreach; go to the beach and lay in the sun on the sand and read a book; have a picnic with your family; there is the grieving that we will not be here together on Sunday to greet the risen Christ with shouts and songs of praise and then go our for brunch or gather with family in homes or whatever it is you do on Easter Morning.
On this Good Friday, I invite you to make a list of these and other things you grieve over as a result of this pandemic. There is some solace in that we are all in it together, but each of us is grieving something
we mourn what we have lost and can never get back.
Good Friday is a day were we sit with pain and tragedy. The death of Jesus is a meaningless death in some ways. He is wrongly accused, convicted and executed. And from all accounts, it seems that, on this day, evil wins. The religious leaders against Jesus, the Roman Empire, even the people who days ago paraded palms for him now reject him- all of them- have won. “It is finished.” He says, and he breathed his last and that is it.
But. Death is not the last word. There is more to come. There is yet mystery in these words for we who live on this side of death, but they reiterate the hope declared in Psalm 139, “If I make my bed in Sheol you are there.”
And in an instant, Good Friday takes a turn.
Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.’ And in doing so offers a hope that transcends the moment A hope grounded in reconciliation and forgiveness.
With arms outstretched on the cross, God is reaching out in grace towards humanity and Jesus is God’s love in the flesh. This moment at the foot of the cross is the culmination of God’s story in the scriptures. A story of a God who pursues humanity in love to the very end and commits not to leaving Jesus in his suffering. Nor for that matter, you and me.
Here is a God that does not act in retribution and wrath but in compassion and mercy, and in love and grace.
But then again we should not be surprised at this, for God’s work in and through Jesus is all about transformation. God takes this cross, on which his only begotten Son is dying, and has for us changed it from being an instrument of torture and death to an instrument of life and hope. We claim this grief for our own and we lift it high enough and color it with stained glass and light it up that it is a beacon on a hill that can be seen from the road below and from the freeway.
Yes we grieve- we grieve for our Lord and we grieve for ourselves, for those who have lost someone to this Virus, and for the way our normal has been forever changed. Because we don’t know how long we will live like this or can live like this.
But let us also remember that Jesus also said, in three days I will rise. The night will give way to the dawn, darkness must give way to light; despair gives way to hope.
O death, O death, where is thy victory? Where, O death where is thy sting?
Death’s victory will be robbed. Even before the Easter morning we glimpse the power over which the darkness has no dominion. Today- this day, there, on the cross, grace is given. Love, divine love, has descended. And it lies there, incarnate.
Our journey to Holy Week continues comma and we have arrived at that night when Jesus gathers with his disciples an offers them a new commandment.
How is this night different from all other nights? Is one of the 4 questions asked at a Seder meal
How is this night different from all other nights?
It is also Passover. In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the very first Passover that happened long ago. When Moses issues instructions to the Hebrews to prepare for the coming of the Angel of death. The Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt and Pharaoh would not let them go despite the plagues that had befallen the Egyptians: blood in the Nile, frogs, lice, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness, Now in an ultimate show of force God is about to send the Angel of death to strike down the first born of Egypt.. As a sign of protection the Hebrews are instructed to paint lamb’s blood on the doorposts and the lintel. They are to eat in haste and be fully dressed and ready to go, shoes and all. The blood on the door of the houses will be a sign and death will pass over them. They are to keep this day and remember it, celebrate it as a festival, from generation to generation.
Throughout the millennia and even to this day, Passover is among the most holy of days in the Jewish calendar. Families and friends gather for the Passover seder, a meal of foods rich with symbols such as roasted lamb bone, bitter herbs, Charoset, eggs, and vegetables.
How is THIS night different from all other nights?
On this night, God’s chosen people remember how death swept over Egypt. They tell the story of how they escaped- leaving so quickly in the night that their bread did not have time to rise. They tell the story of how God protected them from the pursuit of the Egyptian soldiers with clouds and a pillar of fire. They remember the sea and the waters as they parted so they could cross on dry land- only to reconnect and drown their pursuers.
They remember the miracle of God’s deliverance and safe passage out of bondage. This Biblical Story is our story too, we claim it so and so we too asked this question with child-like inquiry:
Why is this night different from all other nights?
In this time of pandemic- the answer to the question should be obvious. But sill, on this night we read and hear about Jesus’ commandment to Love. To follow in his example in becoming the servant. On this night, he took things that were familiar and ordinary such as a bowl of water and a towel and gave them new meaning. In the ancient time, foot washing was a functional kindness. It is simply how you also welcomed barefooted or sandaled travelers who walked for hours on hot dusty roads.
But on that night, foot washing became a symbol of love. We have been told how important it is to wash our hands to avoid contracting or spreading germs. Think about it, it’s not just good common sense- it IS an act of love and caring offering to protect those we care about, and strangers alike.
On this night we recall that the Altar represents Christ’s body- we will strip it bare As he was stripped of his clothing before he was crucified. On this night we will recall his death on the cross as we wash the altar as a dead body being prepared for burial. But unlike what happened in the garden of Gethsemane, we do not leave him to pray alone, we surround him with beauty and keep him company as we do what he did, praying for the strength to do what God asks of us as we live on , in a cruel, destructive, and sin filled world.
So why is this night different from all other nights?
On this night, we place on the altar the reserved sacrament giving thanks for the blessing of bread and wine as the body and blood of our Lord in whose death gives life. We sit or stand before theses sacraments and symbols of the God who forgives us, restores us, and makes all things new.
On this night that is different from all other nights, we are called to bear witness to all that makes it different. It’s more than remembering and telling the story of God’s deliverance, more than hearing about the washing of feet. On this night we are given a new commandment. That’s where Maundy Thursday Comes from- the Latin Words Mandatum Novum- or A New Commandment.
And that new commandment is to love one another as I have loved you.
For Jesus and the Church, this loving act of foot washing involves a level of touching and intimacy. When we greet one another and pass the peace we shake hands, hug, offer a kiss of peace. When we present lei, we typically exchange a greeting like a hug or honi the traditional Hawaiian exchange of breath.
Just the other day, my dad happened to be at the commissary. I haven’t seen him in at least two weeks, we talk on the phone, but there we were in the Cereal Aisle, standing six feet part, talking about trying find my mom some ingredient. And I wanted to hug my dad so bad. But not now, not because I thought he had COVID or because I thought I might. We didn’t. And that too is borne of love. And that seems both right and wrong at the same time.
For now, outside of our own immediate household, there is no touching. Physical distancing is the rule of the day. And ironically enough in this time of physical distancing, Jesus still says to us, “do to others as I have done to you.” “Love one another as I have loved you.” We are still called to carry the goods news of the transforming message that God loved enough to send his son into the world; that God loved enough to become human and willingly endured pain and suffering.
Tonight Jesus is calling us to continue his great legacy, to live in to his commandment to love and find new ways to wash feet and nourish bodies and give comfort to people who are in pain; to bring Good News, to help the hungry, the homeless, and the hurting.
What makes this night different from all other nights?
In some ways, absolutely nothing. It is a Thursday among a string of Thursdays in pandemic. But our witness is to tell the story. The story of the hope that lies at end of this dark night. Of God working in our lives- All of our readings tonight show God in action: liberating, serving, taking, blessing, breaking, sharing. But our witness, even in this time, as those bearing the name of Christ, is that we make this night different by laboring with God to not give into the despair and hopelessness of our situation. The Church has been here before in its history- through times and places of plague, famine, war, economic stress and uncertainty. Through it all it continued to bear witness to the to the power of that great commandment to love.
“Love one another” is our mandate for this day. Tonight we lovingly prepare the altar and wash it in preparation for death. Tomorrow we will see love crucified on the hard wood of the cross. Tomorrow we will see love laid in a tomb to be buried and mourned.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
This night is different from all other nights because tonight, wherever we are, we write on our hearts, and teach to our children, Jesus’ command to love one another and care for one another. Through such acts of love, he says, “By this everyone will know you are my disciples.”
Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 5, 2020
I think I need to take a moment after hearing the Passion Gospel. Every year, it’s the same, and yet every year, and especially this year, it is different.
It’s the same in the sense that the Church observes the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Each year we would have gathered outside the doors to bless palm crosses and branches and then shout, “Hosanna!” And then sing with great gusto, All Glory Laud and Honor. Every year we would have heard the Passion of our Lord, from when Jesus plans dinner with his friends, to Jesus’ body being sealed in the tomb. There are a lot of details, a lot of parts, and lots of emotions. We hear it and it’s the same each year.
But then again, it’s not. This year, we gather not here at this place, but in our homes, loving one another through physical distance, phone calls, emails, and teleconferencing. Each year we come to this same story and we bring to it all the joys and hurts we live through. There are births, and deaths, sufferings and excitements, mistakes we’ve made and the pain and learning that time has taught us since the last Palm Sunday. This COVID thing of course is more than just an inconvenience. Our separation is but one of the hurts we now live with and bring to God in prayer.
And BECAUSE we know this Passion story so well, it might be tempting for us to gloss over the details and fixate on what we will still celebrate NEXT Sunday. We still have the Triduum- Thursday, Friday, and Saturday services before we get to the main event on Easter morning. We know that Jesus will defeat evil, injustice, and other forms of death, not with the might of kings and armies, but with Love, and Resurrection.
But to know and appreciate the life that will greet us at the empty tomb, we must journey first to the cross. We can’t skip the tragedy to get to the happy ending.
The genius of our heritage as Anglicans and Episcopalians is that in Holy Week, we pull out the big moments in the story, to listen, live them, identify with them, and sit with them. On Thursday we will sit in the moment of Gethsemane. We will be like the disciples while Jesus is at prayer, and struggle to stay alert to the ways God is at work in the world. We will sit through betrayal, and come to grips with the ways we have both confessed our allegiance and denied Christ.
On Friday we will sit in the moment of death. We will journey in the Way of the Cross and hear again the pain and suffering of the Passion. The world will seemingly become dark, and the crowds who lined the streets this day and shout “Hosanna” now cry out “Crucify him.” The brokenness of humanity gathers for the spectacle of public execution. What grief do we now bring to before the cross?
In this story the ordinary all become sacred- used for a holy purpose. There is a donkey and a colt, regular livestock given fro the glory of God. There are plants, like palms, grown naturally and waived to the glory of God. There are cloaks, taken from people’s backs and spread out on the road, also for the glory of God. There will be bread and wine. A table- a table made sacred in the glory of God.
These are every day things, more or less, and they are all made holy. When you gather around your tables this week to eat, there may not be bread or wine, but let that be the table at which Christ is welcomed. And where YOU are welcomed by Christ. It is a table made holy by God’s very presence in your midst.
Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Paul reminds the Philippians that while Jesus “was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Even in his own identity, Jesus showed us how something so worldly – his very humanity – his human-ness– can be so holy – divine.
And this Jesus who empties himself to become one of us, will humble himself and do the salves work of washing his disciples feet. There he will give us a new commandment- “love one another as I have loved you.”
We are asked to love. To love those who come to the table, even if we know they will betray us. To love each other enough that it means we must keep our distance and speak to one another through masks. To love in prayer, lifting one another up to God asking for comfort in their loneliness, sickness, recovery, injury, grief, and sorrow. To love with generosity and hospitality in our heart. To love as Jesus loves, who has shown us how to seek and honor the divinity every person we see, and in all the world.
I definitely think I need to take a moment after hearing the Passion Gospel. Every year, it’s the same, and yet every year, and especially this year, it is different. Each year it is an opportunity for us to enter the story- a story of ordinary things being made holy for a purpose. Even the cross is made sacred. What do WE have available to us, as individuals and a community, that we can offer to God and make holy? Look around and see in the day-to-day and take for granted. How can we make what we have, more than just our stuff, but our hands, minds, and hearts- how can we offer them to God in thanksgiving and gratitude, that they may be use to share the Good News of God’s love?
We will hold on to Easter hope, knowing that it will soon be among us. We hold on to Easter hope as we live into the moments of betrayal, grief, injustice, violence, and grief. As we sit with the Passion of Jesus and of what is and what is to come. We hold on to Easter hope as we sit in our own moments of this plague of sickness, isolation, depression, and loneliness.
I miss you all so very much. And I hold on to the Easter hope that we will be together again. Not now, but one day.
Sometimes such hope is all we can hold on to. But THAT hope is the spark that ignites the Easter flame- a fire that is the light to drive away the darkness and reveal all that is holy.
Please continue to love one another and help us share that love. This coming week there are a number of services:
There will be a Maundy Thursday Service at 630 pm.
On Good Friday 11AM Stations of the Cross, and at 12 Noon the Good Friday Liturgy.
On Saturday- An Easter vigil at 630 pm.
And on Easter Morning at 10AM. We will have the Liturgy of the Word and we can bring back that “A” word we’ve put away for the last 6 weeks that I won’t say here.
Please also mark your calendars and check the website for info regarding our Tuesday night Lenten Study on Zoom. We continue with the Letter of 1 Timothy. Our Wednesday Morning 11am Zoom Bible Study is will explore the readings for Easter Sunday.
We are still using Zoom as our preferred platform at the moment. This week we are trying it in both Facebook live and Zoom simultaneously. It’s in the news- a thing called Zoombombing. I have tightened the settings to reduce the chance that someone will hijack the session. You are welcome to share our links with your family or friends, but we ask that you avoid posting them publicly on social media. Maybe have the links point to our webpage.
It occurred to me that the group of volunteers calling on people to ask about prayer and support is a Lei Kukui Aloha- a kukui lei of love and caring. I’ve kind of adopted the symbol of the kukui here at St. Tim’s as a symbol of the light of Christ we share with the world. I am grateful to them for their support and for reaching to every one in our directory. If there is someone you know who could benefit from a call, please let us know either by calling the office directly or through the call team.
Welcome to our second Sunday streaming broadcast of Morning Prayer in this time of the COVID Crisis.
Is it so hard to believe that Lent is almost over? The 5th Sunday in Lent is already upon us and the dramatic events of Holy week beginning with Palm Sunday are but one week away.
Our sojourn into the desert of this barren Lenten existence was first greeted with a memory. We were reminded of that which is certain- since the very dawn of creation where God, formed us out of the dust of the earth and then BREATHED life into us.
Back on Ash Wednesday we greeted the Lenten path with a memory, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
“ “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, O Lord God, you know.”…“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
The reading of the valley of the Dry bones from Ezekiel is one of my favorite Old Testament readings. The best line of all is “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can these bones live?
Ezekiel was the prophet among those deported when the Babylonians first took Jerusalem in 598 BC. That the bones are dry symbolizes the lifelessness of the exiles- they are now strangers in a strange land, they have been stripped of all that they have and many are slaves. They lack the hope that one day the Kingdom of Israel will be restored to its former glory as it was under the rule of King David.
Event the Psalmist sends forth a prayer from personal trouble, “Out of the depths, I cry to you O lord, ; Lord hear my voice.” Is this not our prayer too at times?
Especially now when we are told to stay home. In my phone calls to some of you this past week you tell me about the present circumstances and protocols that say you cannot visit family and friends in care homes, or hospitals, when some of you are now shut-in or working from home
or are even out of work
because the industry and the economy are in crisis- THIS is a time where we find ourselves in the dry valley. It is the place were we pray to the Almighty: “our soul waits for the Lord, more than watchman for the morning.”
Mary and Martha waited for Christ, to come to the aid of their brother Lazarus, who is ill; and when Jesus shows up two days later, Martha said to Jesus, “Where were you?” Why didn’t you come when we called you, Lazarus was ill and you could have healed him, now he’s dead and it’s too late. In fact, he’s been dead four days now.
In the wisdom of the Church, the lectionary once again lends itself to some of the most beautiful and poignant verses in scripture.
That in the midst of Lent, a time where we corporately and with great intent go to great lengths to point out to ourselves and to others the miserable sinners that we are and that we are more and more in need of God’s salvation. Yes, dear friends even in the Episcopal church we can say that we need to be Saved. We are but dust and to dust we shall return. We need salvation from loneliness, salvation from self-centeredness, salvation from stark individuality that cares for nothing but itself, salvation from the hunger of power and control. We like the Samaritan woman desire the salvation of the life giving water, we long to go wash the mud off of our eyes that we may begin to see the world in a new way.
That those readings of the Samaritan woman, the blind beggar, and rising of Lazarus appear in this Lenten season is no accident. They all are about renewal, about community coming truly alive.
These stories are about restoration, not of individuals, both about communities being redeemed. The bones and Lazarus both stand to represent not just individuals, but those individuals participating in community. We should look beyond the obvious, that Lazarus’ resurrection is strikingly similar to the account we soon will hear of Jesus’ resurrection.
When Ezekiel, asks, “How can these bones live?” The prophet is speaking to us as a community.
There is no doubt that many times our lives are like those bones set before Ezekiel. We feel without hope, that there is no life within us. Out of the depths we cry to God, “Can these bones live?!” There are times when we as individuals are metaphorically, dead and living in darkness what seems to separate us from Christ is a large rock that seems so immovable. And yet, Christ is there weeping with the power to roll away the stone and cry out , “Lazarus, come out!” All of a sudden our darkness turns to light and we can emerge from the darkness and let loose the ties that bind us. That the obstacles that block our path will be cast away, that we will be raised anew
And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.
All this is great heady stuff of poets and preachers. But what of all of us and members of this community? How will we continue to be people of the resurrection?
I think we are in an exciting time. Yes. Exciting. We are NOT becoming like the bones of Ezekiel that have form and muscle, but no life. God continues to breathe life into our bones, the Holy Sprit is very much in and among all of us. When Ezekiel is told to speak to the breath- the Hebrew word there is ru-ach. Unlike the “wind” that blows the dust, ru-ach is breath that animates us. In our Hawaiian context this is the “Ha”. The ru-ach is the same breath that was breathed into us at the dawn of creation. There is a spiritual quality to the ru-ach as there is a spiritual quality to our whole self.
It seems odd I know to speak of this now, because it seems that this is might be more of an Easter Sermon than a 5th Sunday of Lent one, but don’t you see? That’s the point. We are all people of resurrection. We are Easter people. We are the people whom bones have been brought back to life, where breath of life has been resorted. We are the people who time and say, like the Samaritan woman, “Give me this life giving water.” And through the water of baptism we have been reborn, raised anew in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are the people who in ways are blind. Our Lord comes along makes some mud and asks us to go wash and we can see the world in a new way. Jesus weeps and rolls away the stone, and calls us by name. We are Easter people.
That Easter joy cannot be fully understood nor appreciated without the darkness that is the “depths out of which we cry.” The valley of the dry bones. And of course I know it’s hard to talk about being Easter people when I know we will not be physically together on Easter Day.
Even though we cannot be together on Easter morning, the stone is still rolled away, and the risen Christ lives among us. In Christ, death does not win even when there is evidence to the contrary.
Lazarus was in the tomb for days, and Mary and Martha were in their grief, And we might think that this would be the end of it. Martha thought so- she says to him, but he’s been in the tomb for four days. Christ speaks to darkness of the tomb and told Lazarus to come out.
God in Christ is speaking to us even now in this moment and time of our darkness, he is standing with us as we look out in the valley of the dry bones. We ask him, “can these bones live? Our hope is lost and we are cut off completely.” And God, says to us, “ I will bring you up from your graves, O my people, I will put my spirit with you, and YOU SHALL LIVE,”
How will these bones live? (Self) How will these bones live ? (others) The breath of God already dwells among us. Paul in Romans says “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
In Christ we have been brought up from our graves. At the font of baptism we have been reborn; in our prayers we lay bare our bones, and sinews, and flesh that Christ may once again speak to the breath call us as he did Lazarus, and say “Come out!” and bring life to our mortal bodies.
To say that we find ourselves in unusual times is an understatement. In many, many ways, the norms of our world have been turned upside down. When we have spent time and energy figuring out how to welcome friends and new comers to St. Timothy’s and our sanctuary every Sunday, we are now observing social distancing and tell folks to not gather in groups of more than 10 and to join us online. This morning, I am here in an empty church and instead of preaching to all your smiling and eager faces, I stare into the little black dot that is a camera on the back of an iPad. Thank you to all of you joining us on Facebook this morning, if you missed the live broadcast, you might be watching as a recording.
If Facebook and livestreaming aren’t enough, we have the gospel story of the healing of a man blind from birth and in our Old Testament the anointing of David as King by Samuel. Together these readings along with the Epistles are about vision and light.
There is a trap set for us people of faith in this time of the Coronavirus. Its unavoidable, cause all we have to do is go to the grocery store to find naked shelves. We only need to look at the news, or around town, or in our own lives, to ask the disciples’ question: “Who sinned” and thus caused this to happen? It’s a powerful and poignant question. John’s gospel is full of wonderful theology and there is a powerful metaphor of spiritual blindness, in this story. For now, however I want to focus on this question: How can an all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God allow totally undeserved suffering to exist in the world? A world that God has created and loves?
Jesus saw a man blind from birth and his disciples asked him, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? The old and ancient belief was that a malady of such as this blindness was from and of God. Things that happen have to have a reason or an explanation- they have to make sense if we are going to wrap our minds around such a thing.
But I have to tell you, I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around this virus. I understand the science of it all- the way it is transmitted and that we should thoroughly wash our hands; I understand the need for social distancing, for modifying store hours, switching over to takeout and even moving our worship to a new platform. But for all these measures to place such burdens: financial, social, and even on our own relationship with the Church and the sacraments, possibly even God, it feels at times that we have been struck with a darkness and we cannot see the way ahead.
There are all kinds of things that can be said about this story of The Man Who Was Born Blind: things about sin, about blindness both literal and metaphorical, about miracles, about how societies divide themselves, the barriers we erect for those not just like us and so on. He is an outcast. He is forced by societal norms to live on the margins of society and to beg for his living..
Yet, the most fundamental purpose of the story as it works in John’s gospel is to illuminate. It is to shed light on the essence of who Jesus is.
Jesus says of the man born blind that through this man, the works of God can be made real or manifest. Does that mean that God MADE the man blind in order to demonstrate or illustrate a point? I certainly don’t believe that. What I do believe is that the place to look for God in this tragedy, or in any tragedy, is not at the front-end. Not at the point of causing it to happen.
Other Christian brothers and sisters will disagree with me by but I cannot conceive of a God sitting in heaven, passing out cancer cells, birth defects, earthquakes, strokes, car wrecks, Coronaviruses and blindness like some hideous dealer at a high-stakes cosmic game of poker.
Instead, the place to find God is the same place where we find Jesus, who is after all God in human form- the Incarnation, as John also put it, the Word made flesh who dwells among us. Where is God- Where is Jesus? In the middle of the mess, in the very worst parts of it, working there to bring forth something new—not something that fixes the mess, but something that redeems and transforms it.
That is where God is found- the God who is active and real among us– the God who has wounds on his hands and feet and side- the God who knows suffering. The God who knows social distancing and isolation in his passion and death and therefore is the God who SHARES our suffering and pain and who takes it into himself in the vastness of his compassion and love.
God didn’t poke out the man’s eyes before he was born, so he would be written down in a book of other stories or become a handy sermon illustration for Jesus. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry says: “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”
My point is this: that even in the midst of undeserved, inexplicable pain and suffering, God can be found. Found in real and in transforming ways.
This real and transforming God’s workings are mysterious, and often chooses the most unlikely persons to be messengers, prophets, and servants of God’s will. Samuel anoints the next king at God’s behest for reasons known only to God and does so defying all norms and expectations. The cultural norm would have been to choose from among the older sons, instead the youngest son David is chosen.
Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” Notice that Jesus says “We.” We must work the works of God. Paul says in Ephesians that “in the Lord,[we] are light. Live as children of light for the fruit of the light is all that is good and right and true.” Tragedy, pain, and suffering are calls and opportunities to ministry and to service. This may or may not be a call to fix whatever the problem is – often, as in the case of this Coronavirus we simply cannot do that – but it is always a call to reach out and to care. It is always a call to discover, to bring, and to share the presence of God in the heart of the tragedy. We are still the Church after all. And the Church is no stranger to tragedy as the Body of Christ in this world it finds itself in the middle of this present time.
But terrible things don’t happen so that we can have an opportunity to minister and serve. God doesn’t work that way, either. But we are called to ministry and service. This was Jesus’ response to the reality of tragedy and suffering—and ministry and service is our call as well.
What is our response? What can we do as a congregation that now must stay in our homes and away from the Church and tune in to worship on our tablets and phones and computer screens? Well for one, we will do what we do best. We will pray for one another and for the world. We will still worship together and offer to God our praise and the longings of our heart. We will listen and feast on God’s holy Word and allow God to continue to nourish our souls on the sacrament of God’s very story of his dream for us and his kingdom.
But we will also live as children of the light. We are a people of hope and of resurrection; whose Christian story knows of hardship and knows that this pandemic will come to an end and that we will be together again worshiping in this space.
We are children of light who knows in our heart of hearts that the Church, the Body of Christ, is not a building or but the people of God joined in prayer and service.
We are children of light who will check in our neighbors, pool and share our resources, feed the hungry in body and spirit; and together we will find this as an opportunity to see NEW light and NEW ways that God is at work in our church and in the world.
We are Children of the Light, healed of the darkness that blinds us to the glory of God. We will wash the mud from our eyes and behold the love that God has for us; a love so deep, so broad, so high that in the midst of this pandemic, amidst the sick and the grief stricken, the businessman and the worker; God is present in it. And through this difficult time, God will ultimately transform it, helping us to say, “Lord, I believe” and answer God’s call to love and serve. AMEN.
“If, because of the one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.” These are the words of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans.
In that phrase he was talking about Adam- and his trespass or sin of eating the fruit in the Garden. We learn that in the beginning because of that sin, death exercises dominion. So what comes to mind when we think of dominion? Is it a famous athlete at the top of her game crushing it against her opponents? Is it a warrior or super hero standing over their defeated enemies, triumphant. Or maybe it’s the alpha predator, like a great white shark in the deep ocean or a lion on the savanna.
Scripture obviously paints a different picture of dominion as we enter the first Sunday on Lent. Last week we met Jesus on the top of the mountain in a moment of transfiguration, he is the Beloved, the Son of God, his whole appearance dazzling white. But in this gospel reading, we jump back, way back, to right after Jesus’ baptism where Christ is driven into the wilderness. Genesis is also a less than happy story- about how humans gave into the temptation- allowing death and sin to enter into the world. The Psalm, traditionally attributed to King David does not have the image of the perfect king, victorious over a beheaded giant or defeated enemies, but rather is heartbroken over wrongdoing.
Lent is that season that is very much about the times and places of wilderness. There are times in our lives when we find ourselves in the desert. There is financial stress, grief and loss in the death of a loved one, uncertainty about a job, retirement, a diagnosis or illness can all be named wilderness. The wilderness is the Wild place- filled with uncertainly a place of wandering and hunger themes universal to the human experience. Even without personal suffering, it is easy to read the headlines and look out across the globe and feel like nothing is improving- the earth is getting warmer, the oceans are rising, we are facing what could be a pandemic in terms of the Novel-Coronavirus, just last week the sacristy was broken into and someone tried to start a fire in the garden courtyard. The election rhetoric is heating up such that society seems to be crumbling around us. Facebook and twitter don’t help either.
When we think of Lent, built into our language of worship are themes of self-sacrifice, and penitence. Yes, Lent is a penitential season, and we began our service with the Penitential Order. We are using Rite 1 and its beautiful, yet archaic language, has the power to make us feel small in the face of God. In the Eucharistic prayer we read and pray:
And although we are unworthy, through our manifold sins, to offer unto thee any sacrifice, yet we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses, through Jesus Christ our Lord; etc, etc.
Here is the acknowledgment of “our manifold sins” and our need for a Redeemer. In the presentation of “our selves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” to God, we experience the transcendence spoken of by St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18. It is in this transcendent experience that we are brought to the Good News, realizing, as John Wesley once wrote, the change that God works in the heart through faith in Christ, our hearts “strangely warmed.” It strengthens our trust in Christ alone for salvation, assuring us that he has taken away our sins and saved us from the law of sin and death.
But these 40 days are not so much about beating ourselves up as they are about following in Jesus’ foot steps through the wilderness. Matthew tells us that Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There are times when the world and our hearts feel like a desert or wasteland. And there are other times when we follow Jesus and the calling of the Spirit and willingly go out into the wilds in order to be with those who are already there. Think of sitting with a grieving friend, or walking a path alongside those in the midst of struggle or hardship.
In the passage from Romans, Paul describes that without Christ, the world is bound up in the sin of Adam and the curse of death. No matter how obedient we might be to the law, death will still have the final say. But in Christ, death does NOT have the final say. We are given a new path and a new way of life as the kingdom of God breaks into our broken world and sets things right.
Yes, “God is with us even in hard times,” but there is more to it. Christ replaces Adam as the mold for all of humanity. Through Christ, humanity once again has access to living fully into the Image of God and living in the victory that Death is not the end. Thus, redemption means that we are free to exercise dominion in this life—even in the midst of the wilderness, even in the midst of suffering. Death, then, does not have dominion. Christ does.
What does Christian dominion look like? We turn to the gospel for our example. Christian dominion is not about physical prowess or power. This is the not about power over nature: Christ rejects the temptation to change the stones into bread. Likewise, he refuses to jump from the temple or bow down to Satan. Dominance is not transforming our surroundings to suit our wants or satisfy our immediate needs. Dominance is not popularity, fame, or glory atop the mountain heights.
Rather dominance comes from feasting on the word of God and from worshiping God alone- a rejection of money and power for its own sake.
Dominion does not require one to leave the wilderness. In fact, such dominion is possible even while entering it or being in it. The picture of dominion given to us in Jesus and in scripture is the power of life even in the wilderness.
In Christ we are given the possibility to dream a life that is not just about getting by or trying ot make it through the desert. As individuals and more importantly as the Church, the body of Christ, together we lift one another up. Together we dream and imagine Christ exercising dominion in our lives. We draw on the grace and love that God has poured into us and share that with the world. We are filled with God’s abundant grace and love and it is with the power of love that reach out to resist systems that try to exert dominion in other ways: racism, economic inequality, loneliness, despair. We name the temptations and brokenness around us including the temptation to think that nothing will ever change and we should look out for ourselves. That it is about me, and my individual wants.
As we begin this journey into Lent, we enter into a period of self-examination and penance. The language of Rite 1 points us in the direction of the wilderness and into it we go. We enter into the wilderness. And while in the dry and wild places of the desert, we look to Scripture and to the saints for those models and images of those who shine with the light and love of God even in the darkest of times. The goal of Lent is not to inflict punishment on ourselves but rather to allow the grace of God to transform us more and more into God’s image. This Lent, let us exercise dominion in life together. We will dare to resist the temptation to give in to the broken systems around us, and instead work to transform the world.
Exodus 24:12-18, Ps 99 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9
Moses has gone up to the Mountain. In our Old Testament lesson Moses along with Joshua head up to the holy mountain. The top of it is covered in clouds and there is drama- thunder and lighting. We do not yet know at this point in the story to know what is happening up there, but what we do know is that Moses has an encounter with God. Heʻs there for 40 days and 40 nights and while in Godʻs presence receives the law. A few chapters down the road in Exodus Chapter 34 we read of Moses coming back down the mountain and the Bible describes his skin as glowing. Clearly, an encounter with God is life-changing.
The first followers of Jesus saw him as the new Moses. Jesus was the new lawgiver. Thus in a similar mystical event, Jesus also goes up to the mountain with James and John and there has his encounter with God.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah represents Godʻs anointing finger upon Jesus. And then just as Moses went down into the valley from the mountaintop so does Jesus. He will go to deliver the people into a NEW promised land.
But what are we to make of this story of transfiguration? As I mentioned Jesus as a new Moses and a New Elijah- he is the lawgiver and the greatest among the prophets for a new age of understanding, a new era in Godʻs story of Salvation. But Jesus is not Moses or Elijah- That time is over. Jesusʻ mission is not in a temple or a mountaintop, or a specific location. Jesusʻ ministry is not a ministry where people come to him, but a ministry where the primary act of worship is going WITH him INTO the world.
Let me unpack that a bit. When Jesus was on the mountaintop and with Peter, James and John, and they witnessed the transfiguration, what did Peter want to do? He says. “Letʻs build some tents here.” He doesnʻt strictly say this, but what he is saying is that letʻs mark this place, where people can come and see the tents one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah so they can pay their respects.
We do this all the time, and we call these sites Churches. There are hilltops, valleys, and holy sites across the world. All of them- places where people go to pray and perchance have their own encounter with God. Who would have thought? This is our tent of meeting, this here is our tent that serves as itʻs memorial to the life and teaching of Jesus.
But the challenge for all of us to see beyond this tent- see beyond these church walls. Because as much as we would like to live here all the time and be our own community, we canʻt. We have other obligations- jobs, commitments, mortgages, and so forth. For many, years I would go to the Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. It was run by the Benedictine Angiclan brothers of the Order of the Holy Cross. The monastery was on the top of a beautiful hill that overlooked the pacific ocean and the Channel Islands. It was a place so beautiful it was always hard to leave. But the brothers did it all the time. Part of their work was hosts of the retreat house for pilgrims like me, but their mission work was really off the mountain, down in the “valley”- out in the world.
Peter is wanting to build the tents wanted to find a way to preserve the moment.
I really love Peter for that very reason. He is so human. He is symbolic of all that is real about us as human beings. We believe and yet have doubt, we confess Jesus as Lord and yet can also deny him. Despite his shortcomings Jesus chooses him to continue his work on earth.
Peter wants to preserve the moment. And how many of us do this every single time. Now that we have these things (phones) we try to preserve the moment as IF by NOT taking a picture … the event never happened. Hike to an overlook- phones out – selfie! I baked a loaf of bread and yes I took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram and Facebook. I am not dismissing the need to hold and preserve memories for posterity like we did once upon a time in photo albums- that too is important. But I fear that with these things, we are so desperate to capture and hold on these and other moments and sometimes I think in doing so we do ourselves a disservice because we lose what these things mean to us and the impact they have. This was Peter’s dilemma? How was it possible to capture this moments and preserve it for posterity. Peter wasn’t wrong to want to do this he was trying to honor the moment in the best way he knew. But for Jesus there was more to be done- he could not and was not going to stay on the mountain. Following this transfiguration.
The story of the transfiguration and Moses’ ascent into the clouds invite us to ask: How do we capture our encounters with God? Anyone who has been on a pilgrimage of any kind whether that is a spiritual pilgrimage or the once in a lifetime trip to Disneyworld or to view one of the natural wonders of the world, we come away from such experiences different than from when we began. When Christ gathers us around this altar in the Eucharist we are not living or reliving a digital moment.
Rather, metaphorically, we are on that mountain. We hear God’s voice telling us to listen to the one we bear witness to who is the Beloved Messiah. And as a result, we are changed by it. We are touched by God’s grace and we can never be the same.
There is however this great temptation to think then that this is where we find Jesus and having found Jesus, it’s our task to take Jesus out into the world.
In his address to all the bishops in the Anglican communion at Lambeth, Bishop Rowan Williams (Archbishop of Canterbury) told them that it was typical of our Christian life to believe that WE needed to take the baby Jesus by the hand and lead him out into the world. There is fallacy and sin in such a belief in that God must be protected by us.
Instead, he offered an image that we are to leave the safety of our booth like churches and follow Jesus into the world.
This is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday we will mark our foreheads with a sign of our mortal nature. Epiphany has always been about the revelation of Jesus, the Light of the World and the incarnation of God, Epiphany has been about the calling and the gathering of the disciples, and now Epiphany draws to a close with the Transfiguration- a moment of light, and revelation, and calling.
When we come way from communion, whether or not we feel it, or know it, or even want or care, we leave this place different in some way than when we came in. We may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does. That is Grace: we may not fully understand the transformation that takes place, but take place it does.
The ineffable mystery that is before us leaves us in awe and serves as food for the journey that calls us not to remain on this mountain, but sends “us now into the world in peace.” And into the world, we go- descending from the mountain; our faces shining because we too have been transfigured; having been in the presence of God. Amen.
Last week it was easy. It was about Jesus telling us that we are the salt of the earth and that we are the light of the world. Last week the message that came from Jesus hinted at bringing flavor to the world; as creatures of light we Illuminate the darkness with the radiance of glory and love of God.
But today we are confronted with the moral life. With the commandments. There are the commandments of old given by Moses, who in the Book of Deuteronomy stands at the gateway to the Promised Land and gives the people: If you obey the commandments of God by loving the Lord your God and walking in his ways and observing his commandments, God will bless you. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear and are led astray to bow down to other gods, you shall perish. “Choose life, so that your descendants may live” he says, “loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding on to his teachings. The book of wisdom called Sirach which is in the apocrypha also says if you choose, you can keep the commandments; before each person is life and death.
And that would be enough for us to go on about our business to think that commandments are simply rules we have to follow and we can evaluate our righness or wrongness of a choice or action. The Big Ten is a good example- Thou shall not bear false witness is a general rule against telling deliberate untruths.
But another way of looking at commandments is to see it as a guide to the formation of our moral character. In otherwords its not just about following a rule for the sake of following it, but rather, through repeated attempts to follow the rule in the face of changing circumstances, we become people who are disposed to do the right thing.
Our gospel lesson for today comes from a section of the Sermon on that Mount that traditionally has been called “Anti-theses,” because Jesus’ teaching is presented in the following pattern: First, Jesus says, “you have heard that it was said ”; then Jesus follows with his own magisterial statement, “but I say to you”. The problem with calling these teachings “Antitheses” is that it suggests that Jesus is contradicting the earlier statement. But this is not so. Rather, what Jesus does with each one of these is take it to the next level. What he says goes beyond commandment itself and the typical understanding of it. When Jesus offers us these commandments, they are not just rules to be followed but that in following them, we are formed and shaped as disciples fit for the Kingdom.
“You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against murder, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to kill, we can still hate and despise others. We can still kill relationships, still treat people as if they were dead to us. To fulfill this commandment is to form our hearts and minds so that we look at others not with anger, but rather with love. The greater gift is to love others as we would have them love us, even when they are our enemies. The commandment is given not just so that we won’t kill each other, but so that we will be the type of people who will seek out someone who has wronged us and work to be reconciled with them.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Again, Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against committing adultery, he is intensifying it. He knows that even if we keep the commandment not to commit adultery, we can still demean and belittle others. Treating others as objects takes what doesn’t belong to us, even if it keeps its distance. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the commandment not to commit adultery is a faithful heart that cherishes our spouses and respects our neighbors.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.’”
Jesus isn’t contradicting the commandment against swearing falsely, he is intensifying it. Jesus knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we can still manipulate others with our words and lead them astray with our tongues. We can make frivolous oaths in the name of heaven and belittle God’s holy name. Jesus shows us that the fulfillment of the law is not just to refrain from swearing falsely, but that our words ought to be so reliable and honest that no oaths need to be taken. The greater righteousness is to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” The commandment is given so that we can be people of integrity.
Becoming grace filled people does not happen in a moment. When we are baptized, it doesn’t mean that at the moment the water hits our head we are “zapped” and all is well with us on our walk with Christ. We hear the words of Jesus who said, “Come follow me and I will make you fish for people…” that was the invitation. These commandments from Jesus is him teaching us how we ought to go about fishing. Jesus came not to abolish he law but to fulfill it. Jesus came to call and form disciples in a community that is devoted to a higher purpose.
We follow the commandments not simply because they are rules; we follow the commandments so that we might become the type of people Christ wants us to be, people formed and fashioned for life in the kingdom of God.
God gave the commandments not so that we would become moral rule keepers; rather, God gave us the commandments as guides and exhortations for the formation of our character so that we might become people who are pure in heart, so that we might love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind, and that we might love our neighbor as ourselves.
Malachi 3:1-4, Psalm 24:7-10, Hebrews 2:14-18, Luke 2:22-40
Well here we are, us Episcopalians, digging into our more liturgically catholic roots to enact and participate in a ritual that goes back to at least the 11th Century and some historians have suggested it dates back to the 4th or 5th Century. I am, of course, talking about Candlemas. Or the blessing of candles.
Why, one might ask, do we go to the fuss?
The blessing of Candles is secondary to the centrality of the occasion which is formally called the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple or simply the Presentation.
It is a feast rich in meaning with several different interwoven themes- presentation, purification, meeting, light. In a way it is a moment for us that glances back to the Christmas and the Incarnation on the one hand, and looks ahead to Lent and the cross on the other.
This feast commemorates the purification of Mary after giving birth of Jesus. According to the law in the Book of Leviticus, in the Old Testament, 40 days after the birth of a boy, the mother was to go to the temple to be declared ritually pure once again. But this is also the presentation of Christ in the Temple as well. It also says that the first born male would also be presented to God. Historically, the feast was kept locally in Jerusalem as early as the year 350. In Eastern Christianity, this feast was also known as “the Meeting,” referring to that of Christ with Simeon. It would continue to be kept widely in the West.
The blessing and lighting of candles is a key part of this liturgy. Before we made a switch to oil filled candles, beeswax candles were blessed, distributed, and lit and carried in procession while the Nunc Dimittis- Lord you now have set your servant free. This symbolizes the entrance of Christ, the True Light into Temple.
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into my temple.
These are the words of the prophet Malachi who says that the messenger is described as a refiners fire or a fuller’s soap. A fuller is one who washes wools or fabrics. The book of Malachi was written in the late 4th century BC to a society that was filled with sorcerers, perjurers, corrupt employers and landowners. No surprise there. God is responding to the objection that God is unable to deal with the evil doers and make things right. Instead God declaers there will be a messenger who will come to the temple with the purpose of cleansing it and warning the people. The reading of Malachi is deceptive. IN actuality, this is strong stuff. Eventually, Jesus will fulfill this prophecy when we cleanses the temple and over turns the money changers tables- chasing them out with a whip of cords.
But today’s Gospel is Jesus’ first entry into the temple. He is but 40 days old, and as a tiny infant, he is carried in to the temple in Mary’s arms. There are three rituals that take place, The purification of Mary, the redemption of the first born, and the presentation of the child in service to God. And then there is Simeon. When the holy family arrives, Simeon comes out. This is the moment he has waited for all his life. He is an old man now and was told that he would not die until he met the Messiah. He bursts into joyous song, in the words known to the us as the Nunc Dimittis. The Song is sung in the evening at Vespers and Compline- the traditional words are hauntingly beautiful:
“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation;
Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people;
To be a Light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”
As a Light to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel, Simeon boldly declares that Jesus is the light of the world as well as the glory of his own people of faith.
Also in this scene is Anna- the prophet- She ALSO praises God. It is a wonderful picture of wisdom of old age paying homage to youth in infancy. Together they represent a transition of the time of the Old Testament to new era.
Ok, So where are we?
On this great feast of Candlemas we recall how Jesus was presented to God in the Temple, the most holy of all the sacred places of his religious faith. Today and every time we gather we are called to present ourselves anew to God in worship – Our Lord’s presentation in the Temple sets us up for our own kind of presentation. If you look carefully in the language and the parts of the Eucharist, we ask God not only to transform the bread and wine into a Sacrament of Grace, but we also ask God to transform US as well. We ask for God’s blessing, we ask for God to purify our hearts and make us a new creation. In worship we put the past and its failings behind us, and turn our focus toward the living God who loves us and who calls us to a holy life a life of grace and transformation. It is a life that follows the path Jesus called us to when he plucked us from our fishing nets and mundane existence to discover the adventure that now awaits us.
Candlemas is a service that is also about the blessing of light- Jesus who is the Light of the World
is, in our hearts, the light of hope.
God calls us to share in the light of Christ – to bring help and comfort to others by that message of hope and light, and to re-awaken our dedication to God in the renewal of our daily lives. So as we bless our candles as it were one last look back at Christmas, giving thanks for the great gift of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, let us also look ahead – the way ahead may be uncertain and even filled with difficulties and challenges for many, but it is the adventure to which we are called. With Christ as our guide, we can be assured of his presence with us and his strength to sustain us, as we follow in his way even to the cross and beyond to newness of life. Amen
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.