Between noon and three

…spare us in the youngest day when all are shaken awake, facts are facts, (and I shall know exactly what happened today between noon and three); that we too may come to the picnic with nothing to hide, join the dance as it moves in perichoresis, turns about the abiding tree. — W.H. Auden, "Compline"

Category: Holy Week

Palm Sunday, 2018

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s, Berkeley, on Palm Sunday, March 25, 2018. (The Annunciation normally falls on March 25, but because of the weight of Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter Week, it will get pushed to Monday April 9. At St. Mark’s we will observe the Annunciation at Evensong on April 8, the second Sunday of Easter, though I know this bends the rules a little!) I have not announced a “theme” for my Holy Week sermons this year, but they are a continuation of the same ones begun earlier at St. Mark’s on worship and life with God. In hindsight, I might have titled these, “The moment that does not pass away,” borrowing an observation on the crucifixion by Br. Jeremy Driscoll, OSB, in his book “A Monk’s Alphabet.” — the point is, the events of Holy Week and in particular the Triduum are the heart of Christian life and identity, the focal point around which everything else, including the cosmos, revolves. These sermons explore that conviction, and try to offer a few different points of entry.

Collect: Almighty and everliving God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the sample of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Philippians 2:5-11, Mark 14:1-15:47

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:

After the Passion Gospel a sermon needs hardly to be preached; you’ve already heard most of what there is to say! But all the same I’d like to spend a few moments sketching out the territory for the week ahead.

We began this morning with one of the most ancient collects in our prayer book: “Assist us mercifully with thy help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby thou hast given us life and immortality.” The contemplation of those mighty acts. How do we accomplish this contemplation? In large part by dramatic reenactment.

We began this service out in the courtyard and sang the same Hosannas, waving the same palm branches as the crowds in the Gospel. We’ve just heard a dramatic retelling of the same episode. In my last parish we began out on the front lawn, even invited a local petting zoo to be a part of the day. The star visitor was a venerable donkey named Donatello, a fifteen year veteran of the festivities, who always proudly led the procession into church.

Over the course of this coming week we’ll undertake to wash one another’s feet, carry the Sacrament to the altar of repose, strip the altars, venerate the cross, and carry out a vigil as after a loved one’s death — all dramatic retellings of this series of events which is right at the heart of the church’s identity.

So, with God’s help, we enter the contemplation of these mighty acts. A big part of this is remembering what happened, and who were the players, and what were their motivations. We tell the story dramatically over the course of these days In part to jog our memories, and to give us the time we need to consider the scope of the drama and to offer us various points of entry into the unfolding narrative.

Remembering in this way, just like revisiting the story of the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving or Thomas Jefferson on July 4, helps to create a common set of reference points for who we are as a people, as a family of faith. It creates a baseline of shared memory: none of us were there ourselves all those years ago, and yet we are the common heirs of the memories all the same. Sharing them with one another creates and sustains the succession of generations for whom this holy week is their own inheritance, their own treasure.

It’s a remembrance, but it’s more than a remembrance. This past Wednesday, at the regular 12:10 service, the appointed first reading was from Daniel — that episode where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego get thrown into the fire for not worshiping the king’s golden image. You know the story: instead of burning up, they walk around in the flames together, saying prayers and singing hymns. Meanwhile, as they walk around, King Nebuchadnezzar is watching to make sure they burn up like they’re supposed to — but he notices it’s taking longer than usual, and also he notices a fourth person in the flames with them, who wasn’t there when they got thrown in: he looks like a son of God. The king is so confused he lets them all out, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are all unscathed — but no trace of the fourth person. The implication is, that, as the three of them said their prayers and sang their hymns, God himself appeared beside them.

We tell ourselves the same thing as a way of encouraging us to pray, and to come to church: especially this week! — when we remember together as a group the events of Jesus’ passion and death. As we pray together and sing, God appears among us, affirming our faith and leading us to the other side of whatever challenge we might be facing. Jesus promises that wherever two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is in the midst of them.

But it’s important to remember, praying is not a way of coercing God to show up. In the fiery furnace, the angelic visitor did not show up because he was impressed by Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s faith, or by their discipline, or their conviction. And for that matter on the cross: God does not decide to forgive our sins just because Jesus says, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” No, the thing about prayer, and the thing about remembering in the context of prayer, is that it does not coerce God into doing something that wouldn’t otherwise happen; rather, prayer reveals what is already true, shows what is already present, and enables us to recognize what was there all along but we couldn’t see or notice.

In the fiery furnace, Nebuchadnezzar could finally see for himself that God was with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego no matter how badly the king might try to isolate and shift their loyalties to himself alone. When a priest anoints the sick and prays for healing, it’s not magic for manipulating germs or enchanting the body’s powers of recovery. It’s merely to reveal that God the source of life is present even in the midst of illness, suffering, and death; and that the sight, the glimpse, the touch of God which anointing reveals allows for a more profound healing than any miraculous cure or magical incantation. On the cross when Jesus prays, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do,” he reveals to everyone present and to all of us that God’s mercy runs far deeper than any sin, violence, mockery, or injustice, and we can only be silent in awe before the mystery.

So it is with Holy Week, and with all our liturgical remembering — and for that matter with all our prayer in whatever context we offer it. We do not create what was not present already; we do not coerce the nearer presence of some reluctant or faraway deity. We merely open a window on what was there all along, and which will continue through endless ages, closer than the closest friend or brother, or even thought or feeling.

The events of Holy Week, its characters, and chief of all its God do not pass away. In remembering them together, we open a window onto a deeper reality than we can see most of the time.

In Holy Week, we see again as if for the first time a God whose chief characteristic is generosity, free and open and continuous to the world he has made, full of mercy and loving-kindness. We see a world gathered together around a death, uneasy with the wickedness that has been done, implicated in more ways than one, but powerless to stop it from carrying on. We see a Savior betrayed, but who in betrayal forges a way through death: that what was once an ending, the only ending, ending every story ever told, is now the continuation of my story and of every story in the further reaches of divine Love.

In Holy Week we see everything orchestrated together into a music which all creation sings. As we reenact, and remember, and pray, and sing together, we take up our parts and join the harmony of the whole. This year may God grant us a special glimpse of this music in which the whole world is caught up, along with life and death and all time. As we retrace the final steps of Jesus’ earthly life, may we see all the more clearly that pattern, that rhythm, to which the whole world moves. Seeing more clearly, may we love more truly; and loving more truly, may our joy overflow.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.

Maundy Thursday Family Service

I preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017. Our Holy Week Preacher this year was the Rt. Rev’d Frank Griswold, former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. His sermons for the week can be found here. This “Family Service,” geared towards children, took place before the principal Liturgy of the day.

Collect: Almighty Father, whose dear Son, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood: Mercifully grant that we may receive it thankfully in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, who in these holy mysteries gives us a pledge of eternal life; and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 21-32

Today is Maundy Thursday. This day is so special we have a special worship service to mark it. Today is the day when Jesus had the Last Supper, in the Upper Room with his disciples.

We do three things in order to mark today: First the Celebrant, Mtr. Ezgi will wash your feet. As we just heard in the Gospel, Maundy Thursday is the day when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, before they all sat down to supper.

Have your parents ever told you, “Go wash your hands, it’s time for supper?” My parents did that all the time: no matter where I was in the house, when I heard the shout, “Blake, time to wash up!” I knew that we were about to eat. I always dropped my homework, or stopped practicing the piano, or put down my book, or stopped playing my game, and went straight to the bathroom to wash my hands. Dinner was important in my family. We almost always ate together, and washing our hands beforehand was a way to make sure we were germ-free before eating — but it also became the way I prepared myself mentally for enjoying the meal I was about to eat with my family.

The same is true for Jesus and his disciples, and even more so. He doesn’t just send them to wash on their own, he washes them himself. And not their hands, but their feet – when you wear sandals all day every day in a dusty climate, your feet quickly become the dirtiest part of your body. Dirty and smelly! Jesus washing his disciples’ feet was a way of saying just how important they were to him, and just how much he was looking forward to this meal together. 

We wash each other’s feet to remind us of Jesus’ example, and to teach us that serving the people we love is one of the best ways we have to love them.

The next thing we do on Maundy Thursday is to have Holy Communion. We do this all the time in church, but on Maundy Thursday it’s especially meaningful because this is the night Jesus gave Communion to his disciples for the first time. 

After he washed their feet, they all sat down to supper. It wasn’t just any normal supper, it was the Passover supper, when they celebrated the people of Israel leaving Egypt, led by Moses out of slavery. Jesus at supper with his disciples is celebrating a holiday meal, a festive meal, recalling God’s power to rescue and to save his people. 

And when supper was over, Jesus told them all that this Passover meal wasn’t just about remembering something that happened long ago. He told them that he himself was going to his death, to be the Passover Lamb of God; and that every time his followers gathered around that table again, he would be with them in the Bread and the Wine. “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”

Tonight we celebrate that Jesus gave us this way to remember him, that Jesus gave us this way to be with him, long after he ascended into heaven.

The last thing we do tonight, after communion, is to strip to Altar. After that last supper, Jesus and his disciples stopped in the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, before continuing on to where they were staying in Bethany. While he was there, Judas led the soldiers to arrest Jesus, and he was carried away to the High Priest and then to the Governor for trial. He was condemned to death, and the next day, tomorrow, he was crucified.

After communion tonight, we will strip the altar, we will take away all the decorations inside the church, to symbolize Jesus being taken away. It is a sad and somber moment: just as we are given the chief tokens of celebrating his presence, the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion, he is taken away from us in almost the same moment. And so we strip the altars bare.

Tomorrow we will remember his crucifixion, and Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection, when we will be glad that death itself cannot keep Jesus down.

But tonight, we do these three things for a very important reason: we wash feet, we celebrate communion, we strip the altar, to remember what Jesus did and what happened to him tonight so many years ago. But more than that, in doing these things we imitate his own life. We grow in his example. And most of all we learn that Jesus’s authority, the way Jesus is king, is not by force or by order, but by love.

Washing feet is an act of love. Sharing a meal is an act of love. Jesus goes to his death out of love for you and me. And so on this Maundy Thursday, we commit ourselves afresh to love one another as Jesus loves us: not counting the cost, not demanding our due, but loving as though nothing else in the world matters.

Because in truth, nothing else does matter but to love others as Jesus loves you. This Maundy Thursday, may you grow in his image, and find yourself more and more able to love, with his heart giving strength to your own.

Amen.