Got a long post for you… I’m preaching today at the the 8am, 11:15am and 5pm services, and this is my transcript. Be blest, you beloved of God!
I stand before you now in the name of the One who called to Lazarus, “Come out,” who wept with hurting friends, and who risked it all to be with those whom he loved. May we cherish one another as deeply and be as present with each other, in joys and in the darkest of days. Amen.
Has anyone started doodling on their bulletin, yet? I know ours can’t be the only bulletin doodling family at St. John’s. Not only do I invite you to doodle away, keep your hands as busy as you need to, but I invite you to think with me for a moment, and maybe doodle or jot down a few things that come to mind with this question… “What labels do you wear?”
As examples: First in this life I was son and brother, and later I became husband and father. I am Christian, and I have been “Pastor.” I have labels applied to me according to my work and employment, my sexuality and gender, and I have labels that try to define and capture my political thoughts and opinions. Some of those labels, I kinda like… but sometimes labels can be hurtful, or limiting and completely unnecessary. Labels are a daily tool and reality of life. We can say we don’t like labels, but we’re kinda stuck with them. So, I think we need to be careful with them.
Someone in our Gospel story we just read was labeled a long time ago, and that stigma still sticks to him, today. Even someone who may not be a student of the Bible has probably heard and used the phrase “Doubting Thomas” to name the Apostle Thomas or chastise a doubting friend. But is that fair? Is a Doubter all that Thomas was? Or, is a doubter even an important part of who or what Thomas was in his life?
One of the many reasons I love our Gospel passage from John 11 is that we learn something about this man named Thomas. If we only knew Thomas from the later chapter when he doubts the word of the other apostles, then maybe I would be more open to the Doubter label, but here he is in chapter 11, the lone apostle of the group we hear daring to go with Jesus into hostile territory. In fact, Thomas is willing to go die with Jesus should that be their fate for venturing to Bethany. He’s willing to go die with Jesus.
This guy Thomas is bought in, folks. He belongs to Christ and is willing to follow him anywhere, into anything and through the worst. Maybe we can understand his moment of doubt in a better light when we understand the depth of his love and devotion to Jesus. Later when he watches his Lord die, he must have been crushed. The idea of his resurrection must also have been a desirable idea, but… trusting the words of his friends?
He’s already lost so much, felt the hurt so deeply, he’s not ready to trust their words and dare to again hope. From the man we know in our passage in chapter 11 this Doubting Thomas could as much or more easily have been labeled Daring Thomas, Devoted Thomas or DareDevil Thomas, willing to give his all to Jesus. And by the way, so ya know, Jesus didn’t label him Doubter, and neither did anyone in our scriptural witness. We did this to him. We, his legacy of faith through the generations, labeled him I suppose for his worst day, his doubting day.
We saddled him with Doubting instead of Daring or Devoted. In a similar vein we’ve done worse to Mary Magdalene through the years. All we know from scripture for sure is that Jesus cast demons from Mary and then she was his devoted, faithful disciple. The Apostle John even names her as the first to witness the empty tomb of Jesus. But we through the centuries have most often rewarded her faith by associating her with a nameless prostitute in another Gospel story. We have often needlessly associated her with sexual sin. By our scriptural witness, she has no specific sin at all, neither a failure of moral or doctrinal nature, attributed to her… but we needed to do that for some reason. We needed to label her Sinner and Adulteress.
What drives us to do this to one another? Why do we need to see one another in the worst light? Jesus didn’t do this… he sets no example of relating to people in their worst moment or identifying them by their failure. He sees people in their best light, sees into their best nature and loves them deeply. That love led him into hostile territory in our Gospel story… Bethany wasn’t safe, but he was determined to be with his hurting friends. And when he arrived, and Lazarus had died, Jesus weeps with his friends.
Maybe standing next to Jesus as he wept Thomas put his hand on his Lord’s shoulder to comfort him? Maybe Thomas held Mary or Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, in their moment of grief and weeping? Thomas was there in the middle of it, because he followed Jesus anywhere and everywhere, and Jesus was in the middle of it. Daring. Devoted.
Think back on some of those labels you carry with you. Specifically, now… think about the negative labels you’ve been given, or maybe have even chosen for yourself… in your mind, name them… do any of us carry something similar to dumb, undeserving, stupid, inadequate, loser, cheater, liar, thief, unworthy, fake? These labels, when given to us or even chosen by us, are not our true selves. Those labels, even when they have been earned, are not who we are.
Martha and Mary both say to Jesus, “…if you’d have only been here…” But Jesus is not late. He reminds the sisters that he has a few labels of his own: I am Resurrection and Life. Martha adds a couple more in a beautiful statement of faith: Messiah, Son of God. And Jesus is going to take that label of “dead” that clings to Lazarus, and tear it away. “Lazarus, come out!” Because if Jesus is Life and Resurrection, then so also is Lazarus, and so are we.
If Jesus is Resurrection and Life we are also Resurrection and Life! Jesus will tear away the worst of the labels we own and replace them them new labels of Goodness and Hope. He does it so many times in Gospel stories: the Unclean and Untouchable become Clean, sometimes they even become Dinner Guests and Hosts. Paul echoed this to the church in Ephesus when he wrote: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient… But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…”
Recently in a Gospel reading (in John 4) we saw Jesus chatting with a Samaritan woman at a well! This woman who seemed in several ways to be labeled Unfit or Undeserving of that conversation with Jesus suddenly finds herself labeled Fit and Welcome by the Messiah. She would even become Prophetess and Missionary, bringing her whole village out to the meet and believe in Jesus.
A few chapters later in John chapter 8 Jesus will famously draw in the sand as some accusers drag a woman caught in adultery to him for judgment. She is labeled Sinner and Guilty, and seems to have earned those labels, being caught in the act. Jesus labels her Un-condemned, Loved and Capable. He sends her back to life with renewed energy and purpose.
Can you imagine how it must have felt to be either of those women, relabeled by love in the presence of Jesus. Can you imagine how it felt to be Lazarus, when the label of Death is remade into Life? Now maybe you want to say to me, “Todd, dead is not a label for Lazarus, he’s dead, as in dead.” And you’re right, he’s physiologically dead, not just labeled so out of spite, but sometimes aren’t we? Maybe we aren’t physically expired, but our souls feel dead, our spirits crushed, our emotions flatlined and others may view us as unworthy of more life, of better life, or full life. We acutely feel the label of unworthy, dead.
Jesus preached a familiar and oft quoted line in his Great Sermon as recorded by Matthew: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the Law and the prophets.” What would life be like for us, for those around us, if we applied that sentiment to the labels we use? Jesus sets an example for us of applying labels that give life. He looks into the lives of the people around him and loves them, and he labels them by that love. He sees them as the best of who and what they are, and he names them as such. And he treats them as such.
Oh, to have someone ignore my worst day, when I fail so miserably, and remember me and call me by my best day. Perhaps I haven’t even had that best day yet, but I think Jesus would still see me for it, name me for it, label me by it. Because the same power that called Lazarus from the grave can awaken my soul, revive my spirit, and re-energize my life, as he calls me Beloved, Redeemed, Sought After, Worthy and Alive.
And this can be scary! Jesus said to roll back the stone and the people protested, “Jesus, it’s gross in there. It stinks.” I can feel the same way sometimes, “Jesus, don’t come to close, I’m just not always what I seem.” But he is not deterred. He says, “Come out to life! Be who you were made to be!”
God has labeled us with love before we earn it, deserve it or even seek it. God has chosen us for love. You are called Alive, Wanted, Worthy. You are Beloved and Welcome. When we are called into his kingdom and mission, this is a gift we receive and then give to those around us who are mired in the death-dealing labels which steal their joy and true identity.
I will remember Thomas for his Daring Faith, not his Doubting Faith. And as God sees me, the best of me, and calls me Beloved, so will I strive to see you and all humanity, in your best. And I with God will call you such: Beloved. Worthy. Amazing. Beautiful. Needed. Valuable.
I have a short favorite poem/prayer I’d like to share with you in closing, written by a Jesuit Father, Michael Moynahan called “Broken Record”. I often turn to it when labels offered to me by this life or by my own failures begin to cloud my memory of how God has labeled me, how God has called me. It’s a prayer of remembrance. It’s a prayer of our truest self and our truest label. It begins briefly as spoken to God, but then shifts to be God speaking to us. Since you can’t see that shift indicated in the text I’ll signify it by raising my hands as God begins to speak in the poem…
You see our sin / as symptomatic stutter,
self-effacing struggle / to ignore
the confounding reality / of Your willful vulnerability:
“I love you
because I can’t do anything else.
I made you,
every last part of you:
all that’s hidden
and all that’s revealed,
all that’s muddled
and even all that’s clear.
at the risk
of repeating Myself,
dear to Me.
You are precious
in My eyes
you are Mine.
That’s enough for Me.
And it will have to do / for you.
Wrestle with it / until you get tired
and then relax / and give in.
Take a deep breath / and enjoy.”
I am a little behind on my goal to read a book a week, but I’m catching up and wanted to share one of my recent finds with you, Constructive Wallowing by Tina Gilbertson. I got it from a clearance table at Barnes and Noble, intrigued by the titled, and it did not disappoint.
Gilbertson writes a funny and easily accessible guide to allowing yourself to feel all your range of emotions, without guilt or regret, and having felt them to move on with life in the best frame of mind and emotional health. One of her niceties that will stick with a reader is her pointing out that the word wallow contains the entire word allow. This is to help free you to let yourself wallow and not be trapped by all the negative connotations we normally reserve for the word. We are allowing ourselves to be ourselves.
For me, after years of experiencing St. Ignatius’ advice on accepting my feelings and exploring them for all available meaning and use (seeking God in all I feel and experience), her advice feels very authentic, doable and constructive. Her book is fun to read and she peppers it with a wonderful array of quotes from notable quotables.
I’ve already passed the book to a friend who was also intrigued by the title when he saw me reading on my lunch break, but the link above is for the book on Amazon, or it would be worth a search at a local B&N.
Enjoy your day, beloveds. Remember that our God is love, not anger, judgment, remorse, regret or hatred. Our God is love and when we pause to ponder ourselves and the word around us, God is loving us more than we can comprehend. Let every voice and noise which threatens to drown out that love be silenced.
Good morning! I wanted to drop the transcript of my sermon from a few weeks ago here for you, if you’re curious. This is the transcript of the sermon, not an academic paper, so I’m not footnoting sources. If you are intrigued or think I got something messed up, please dig in and enjoy the exercise!
Third Sunday After Epiphany, January 22, 2017
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Norwood Parish
Good evening. I come before you in the name of the God of Promises, the God of Plans and the God Who Works in events and times in ways we may or may see.
Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-mark’d love,
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.
You know that prologue, don’t you? Yes, Shakespeare’s introduction to the death-marked love of Romeo and Juliet. Oh, there are and have been and will be love stories innumerable, but Shakespeare knew how to weave a good story, didn’t he? Their love is all the more tragic and memorable these hundreds of years later in part because of their families enduring, destructive hatred. Two households.
But why do I begin my sermon with a passage from Shakespeare? Yes, we as Episcopalians are part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, but there’s got to be better justification than just some English-centrism on my part… it’s because of that Gospel passage we read in Matthew 4. You might think I’m going to preach about fishing for people, but we’ll save that for another day. That’s the easy sermon; I want to talk about John’s imprisonment.
Let’s hear that passage again from Matthew 4…
12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region
and shadow of death light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.
22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.
When I saw this passage as the Gospel for today I immediately asked myself, “Who imprisoned John? It seems I recall it was Herod, but which Herod?” There are several Herods active in the New Testament times and stories, and I decided to dig in and be reminded who was this Herod who imprisoned John.
The first Herod we meet in the Gospels is Herod the Great. You remember him, he ordered the death of the innocent children of Bethlehem, recorded in Matthew 2, in response to his fear that a King had been born to rival his throne. Matthew is our only surviving account of this mass murder. The Jewish historian Josephus does not mention it, but he gives us enough of Herod the Great’s story to know that this is completely in line with his character and cruelty. His murders include, by Josephus’ account, three of his own sons, a mother-in-law and his second wife. Wow.
But it was in fact Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, who ruled a quarter of his late father’s kingdom, who imprisoned John the Baptizer in Matthew 4. We get more of that story in Matthew 14, the story of both John’s imprisonment and his death. You see John had publicly chastised Herod Antipas for taking Herodias, his brother’s wife, as his wife; that got John put in prison. But later when the daughter of Herodias, Herod’s new wife, so enchanted him with a seductive dance, he promised her any wish would be fulfilled. At her mother’s prompting she requested John’s head on a platter. Wow. By the way, it is also this Herod Antipas who participates in the trial of Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel.
Shakespeare is not the only one who can tell a wild story. This is all in the background of our Gospel passage. I got more curious… the story of Jesus and the story of the Herods seem so intertwined and mingled. Where then did this Herod the Great and his son Antipas come from? So I dug some more. Herod the Great was of Idumean and Edomite descent. That makes him a local boy. His dynasty replaced a Hasmonean Dynasty, one with far more Greek in influence and flavor, with his own having a bit of local flavor. The Edomite people had mostly converted to Judaism during the Hasmonean reign.
Digging this deep got me thinking of a famous Edomite, Doeg. Do you recall his story in the chronicle of 1 Samuel? He was a sworn enemy of David, who would be King, into whose royal line Jesus would later be born. Doeg was such a thorn in David’s side that Psalm 52 is specifically written in response to Doeg’s deceit against him. This is Herod the Great’s family line through the Edomites. And now here is Jesus, and his cousin John, hunted by Herod the Great and later facing Herod Antipas in trials and imprisonment and death. The royal line of David and, the royal line of Herod. Maybe not exactly the same, but “Two households, both alike in dignity / From ancient grudge break to new mutiny / Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.” Cool, huh?
We seem to be caught in a larger story than just another day in Judea and Galilee. Herod Antipas had a son, Herod Agrippa, whose death is recorded in Acts 12. Herod Agrippa’s son, Agrippa II would be the last of the Herodian Dynasty.
The history and story of these two families has intrigued me, for sure. But what stands out for me as well is the other story… the story in the background on what God is doing. Back in our passage when these two family lines collide again and John is imprisoned, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his ministry, teaching and calling those people to God. Matthew tells us that this move is in direct response to what had been said generations before by Isaiah, “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Let’s read that reference from Isaiah 9…
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness — on them light has shined.”
This is one of Matthew’s specialties… naming the many things written to foreshadow Christ. His Gospel is full of such references and connections.
I suppose that even while studying and tracing the family of Herod the Great for this sermon, I’m still no where near grasping all the intrigue. There are many rulers in that Herodian dynasty, male and female by the way, that we haven’t named and whose stories we don’t know or speak much of today. But this line of David, this other King, the Christ who is called Jesus, his story we know. His story we tell and tell and tell again. Because unlike so many of Shakespeare’s masterfully written works and plays, there’s Light at the end of this King’s story.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Shakespeare, and most often his tragedies are my favorites: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Titus Andronicus. But when we return to real life, to the stage on which we make our play, I’m so glad that God is working. I’m so glad that God is making light to shine. I’m so glad that God makes promises and is faithful to see them happen.
May we not forget, in the face of any danger, threat or fear, whatever nations or families or powers rage, that we like Christ continue in the work to which God has called us, and we stand in the story of God. Amen.
I had a message pop up in Facebook the other day, my friend Kurt from St John’s had been poking around my blog and reading some of the things I have written on LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance. He correctly pointed out that I was a little out of date… he didn’t say “dude, you’re slacking off,” but he should have. He would have been right.
He also graciously offered me permission to share a short article he wrote this past year for St John’s on what it meant to be asked to help our parish organize a group to march in the annual Pride Parade in DC. He did a great job organizing, by the way… it was my first Pride Parade and I’m hooked.
Here’s the text of his article, and a few Parade photos… please receive it as a gift from Kurt, a brother in Christ, a humble man and a deeply good soul.
Pride Parade Story by Kurt Ellison
It wasn’t long ago that someone stopped me and said, “So what’s the deal with the Pride Parade? Why is St. John’s marching?”
That is no small answer!
As a teenager that grew up at St. John’s, I could tell that we were definitely a church that was not of one mind about the whole gay issue. We had gay clergy, but when it came to choosing a new rector in 1997, St. John’s said overwhelmingly (in its profile survey) that it did not want a gay rector. (Yes, it’s true!)
As St. John’s wrestled with where it was and searched for a new rector, so I was wrestling with who I was – a gay kid who loved my church (and I still do). Living in Chicago as an adult, I found myself at the annual pride parade, and fascinated by the churches that were marching in the parade, and thinking, “Wow, my home church (St. John’s) would never do this!”
Years later, I moved back to the area to look after my ailing parents, I eventually came back to St. John’s and was curious to see how things had changed. Imagine my surprise when Susan Pizza and Sari Ateek eventually asked if I would write a grant for the Norwood Parish Fund to get us to participate in Pride.
I had to think for a while, and pray seriously about it. I was the type of person to watch a parade, not necessarily march in one, much less write a grant proposal, or organize a contingent. In my prayers, I could picture God having a good laugh saying, “HA HA, Kurt! You thought St. John’s would never do this! Now you have to man up!” How could I say no?
I wrote the proposal to the NPF. It got approved (kudos to the NPF folks!). We bought frisbees with the church logo, a banner, and advertised in Crossroads. 25 people showed up to march. We had a blast!
The gay community does not always receive a welcoming message from churches (understatement!). Other churches, while supportive and inclusive are not necessarily putting their message of welcome out there. Marching in the parade tells a whole community that they are welcome at St. John’s. It is a positive risk for the Gospel.
What amazes me still after three years of marching is how grateful people are to see the churches marching in the Pride Parade. All along the parade route we hear time and again, “Thank you for coming!”, and “Thank you, St. John’s!” In 2015 it is no small thing to say, “ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”
Our pastor, Rev. Sari!
…and the man of the hour, Kurt!
Below is one I took at the Parade in 2016!
I got a welcome email from our pastor, Rev. Sari, with some dates for me to do some guest preaching at St. John’s in Bethesda/Chevy Chase! Here are the dates and service times of my up-coming opportunities…
It’s exciting that two of the dates are in the Lenten Season, a deep and reflective time of every year. My thinking right now is to engage the Gospel passages on each of these Sundays as listed in the lectionary. (Links to the passages for each Sunday are inserted above with their dates.)
St. John’s is always a safe place for everyone. The inclusive and welcoming spirit there is one of the reasons we were able to make the congregation our home. You’re always welcome to visit for services, and of course, it would be pure joy to see you drop in when I’m given the privilege to share a message. Questions? Drop me a note with the form supplied below.
I will begin with a confession: It is so hard for me to pray for Donald Trump. As we approach his inauguration it only gets more difficult. But I want to pray for him. I know I should pray for him.
So many of Donald Trump’s words and actions over the last year and a half of public campaigning to be President have offended my sense of civility, stood in stark contrast to my Christian values and often defied every attempt to reconcile them with facts and truth. It’s still difficult to find myself in this situation, where this man is going to hold an office I respect so much. And when I try to pray for him, I can’t escape a feeling that in praying for him I am validating him. I guess I’m still somewhat stuck in the competition and win/lose pain of the election. I mean, if he does well, does that validate the horrible things he said about people? If he prospers, does that validate his fear-mongering and divisive language?
To pray for someone is to love them, and praying for Donald Trump is difficult for me because I have difficulty genuinely loving him. His words and actions have alienated so many people I do love, and so many people with whom I find myself identifying. Yet, at the same time he is a human being, created in the image of God and in possession of the same dignity and worth as those people he routinely criminalized and demonized for political gain. And here’s the kicker… as a human being, God loves Donald Trump as much as anyone is loved. God’s heart breaks over Trump’s words and actions of fear-mongering and division far more than my calloused heart may be bruised.
Oh my soul… the trouble is not that Trump is so difficult to pray for, the trouble is that I sometimes find it so difficult to love. And love is at the core of Christ’s teachings: 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48
Jesus teaches that we best reflect God’s nature when we love those who are least like us and those who like us least. Our love is most divine when we love those we least like. Of course we all believe that we’re the “good” and they’re the “evil,” don’t we? I want to pray for our new president, and I will. But before I can do that I have to spend some time remaking my heart. I need to meditate and focus on loving someone whose words and actions I cannot love. I’ll need to spend some time with Jesus and seek the kind of transformation that allowed him to love those who opposed him, who slandered him and who eventually killed him. Surely, no love has been asked of me that would be so costly as when Jesus prayed for those in the act of killing him, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
I will continue to speak against the things that Donald Trump says and does which offend civility, faith and fact, but I have to start loving him. I have to start loving him because I have to pray for him. Back to that passage one more time, it’s just not that simple or true to believe that I’m the righteous and he’s the unrighteous. Those labels wash away in the downpour of God’s love.