Love thy neighbor

the 21st Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25
October 25th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
Psalm 1
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

There are a few things in life that you just know that you’re going to keep learning about for your whole life. Cooking is one of these things. Now, I like cooking, and I have this nice, happy warm spot in my heart for Italian cooking. I like good meatballs. And there’s no one who makes better meatballs than my dad. He doesn’t do much cooking, but there’s nothing like his meatballs. They’re the perfect consistency, he cooks them just right, like he’s some kind of meatball whisperer or something. You know, I use the same ingredients, I think I keep them cooking for the same amount of time, but they never come out just like his.

But when I tell Dad about his meatballs, these things of joy and glory, and how awesome he is at making them, he laughs and just shakes his head: “Yeah, but Tim, you never had your grandmother’s food. Her food – it was heaven.”

There’s always someone who’s a better cook. There’s always someone who rolls out the bread more skillfully, whose pie crusts are just flaky enough, whose cookies are somehow both moist and crunch at the same time. There’s always someone to look up to, to say, yeah, but if you tried my mom’s cooking, or my uncles barbecue, or my cousin’s pot pie, then you’d know what it means to cook. Then you’d see what cooking is really about. It’s like a miracle. I have a long way to go until I can cook like that.

There’s a depth to things in life. There’s a path to our hobbies, our skills, our great enjoyments, our relationships, and that path doesn’t lead to a nice, comfy house around the corner but just keeps going, over the hills and along the sea. It’s a humbling thing to think of, but also a really good thing. I remember talking to a friend who was into running and who had just run a marathon. I complimented him, and he shook his head and smiled this eager smile: “Yeah, but I think I can do better. I think I can run better.” There’s depth there, there’s humility there, there’s yearning and eagerness even as we see the road before us.

Now, love is another one of these things that we’re always learning about. We are never perfect at love. I remember, back when Helene and I got married, someone told us that the marriage ceremony was not the consummation but the very beginning of learning what it means to love another person. And when Helene was pregnant with Gwendolyn down in Sewanee, one of the priests there, who was a mother herself, told us excitedly that, when her first child was born, she was filled with more love than she had ever felt possible. And I remember thinking just this when my children were born, too. We are always learning more about how to love.

How do we learn more about how to love? I’ve mentioned a few: getting married, having children, and there’s those friendships that we have a nurture that teach us so much of love. Or keeping pets, and those things that a dog or a cat can teach us about devotion, loyalty, and dedication. There are so many things in our lives that teach us to love more fully, more deeply, and with more hope.

But we are also taught in other ways as well. For the call to love can be a challenge, and that challenge can test everything that we are and think ourselves to be. It’s very nice to love our neighbors as ourselves when our neighbors keep to their own business, but sometimes our neighbors are our enemies. And yet we are called to pray for them and to love them as well, as we heard in our reading from Leviticus this morning.

We are challenged when we are asked to love our enemies. We are challenged when we try and love things that we think are unlovable. And we’re challenged not because praying for our enemies is something hard to do, as if it were like some chores that you need to get done but you really don’t want to, or as if it were your math homework back in school, fifty questions repeating the same, tired work over and over again.

Loving our enemies is a challenge because, though it, we see that love is more than just liking things that are good. If love were just to revel in good, nice, happy things, love would be easy. We’d spend our time around our kids or grandkids, we’d enjoy the beach or a nice drive, a good dinner and a good night sleep, and we’d be done with it. But we know from good things like marriage that, sometimes, we learn more about love when we’re in an argument with our spouse, or when our kids come home and say, “Dad, I crashed the car.” We learn more about love when we’re forced to see people we think aren’t worth a dime as people, as human beings, as children of God just as we are children of God.

And we have as our model for love Jesus Christ – and not just Jesus who healed or who gave us those beautiful graces of the Eucharist and Baptism. No, our model of love in Jesus is Jesus on the cross, who had been reviled, whipped, spat on, beaten down, hated, and nailed to a piece of wood, , and yet he said, “Father, forgive them.” We learn about love from those words. For Jesus was not just nailed to the cross and that’s the end of the story. But in that love, through that love Jesus had for us, through his passion, death, and his resurrection, we were all granted the path to everlasting life. That love, that hard love of the cross, that eternal love that overcame all hatred, malice, and evil, that is the love that saved us. That is the true image of love.

We learn about love from loving. Sometimes we learn through loving meatballs, other times we learn through loving when love doesn’t seem to have a place. But we Christians, we are people of love, of dedication, and of hope. Love is always appropriate. Love is always right. That love might look different in different circumstances, but it is always love that we should have at the center of our being, for Jesus Christ is at the center of our being.

Our culture needs some love right now. And I hope, after hearing this sermon, you don’t mistake me for saying that we need some slap-happy, easy-going, kind and gentle sort of love. We need an honest love. We need a love that challenges us. We need a love that doesn’t see our enemies as combatants or opponents, but as human beings, as children of God just as we are. We need to love the truth and to speak it, and to speak that truth, which is the Gospel, boldly, but always, always, always in love. We need to be love, as Jesus was love upon the cross, as Jesus was love when he came to our own hearts, so wracked with sin and malice, but brought us to hope and glory nevertheless. We are called to love beyond the boundaries of this world; we are called to love forever.

Let God In

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 4, 2020
Proper 22
Also, Happy St Francis’ Day

Today’s Readings Are:
Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-14
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46
You can find these readings here.

I once had a book that I never read. It was a CS Lewis book, actually, and it had sat on my shelves for years. I think I had picked it up from my sister. She had a huge collection of Lewis’ books back in high school, and when I went away to college I think I must have grabbed it, wanting to read it, but not having time at the moment. I had it all the way through college, sitting there on my shelf with my Shakespeare and my Tolkien, sitting there and waiting.

            All through college it sat there. It sat there while I was on study abroad, and it sat there as I graduated from college. It even came with me to Japan while I was teaching. It sat there and waited, patiently.

            I often wonder why I never read it. I liked CS Lewis. I always wanted to read more of his work. But there was always something else to read. There were things to read for school, books about English literature and world cultures. There were books about Japanese language. There was other work to do, friends to see and, in Japan, a whole new country to see. And so I just kept the book around, and it sat there, waiting.

            But then something happened. My childhood dog died. We had had Dan for something like fourteen years – we got him when I was ten. He’d grown up with us, saw me off to college, and welcomed me back each time I arrived home, whether that was from an hour south where I went to college or from across the world. He was always there, and he was, in a large part, essentially home for me. And now he had died.

            For those of you who have pets, and for those of you who have had pets who’ve died, you know this pain. You know what it means to have a pet who dies, a pet who was home and, now that they’ve passed, home will never really be home again.  And here I was, in Japan, and home felt weird anyway. All I wanted to do was rush back to New Jersey, but Dan wouldn’t be there. He had died.

            And so I grieved. And in that grief, I don’t know why, but I stood up and took that CS Lewis book off the shelf, that book that had been with me for years upon years upon years, I took it down, opened it up, and read it. And it was exactly the book I needed at that moment.

            The book was called “A Grief Observed.” CS Lewis wrote the book after his wife had died. It was a journal of his grief, of his anger towards God, and how God came into that anger and sorrow and healed him. It is a magnificent, heart-rending book, and it was exactly what my rent, ruined heart needed at that moment. Had I read it earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have really understood it. Now I did. Now, experiencing deep grief myself, the book spoke to me. And I began to heal.

            We aren’t always good at knowing what we need. We aren’t k always good at knowing what will heal our hurts, what will stave off pain or sorrow. We don’t know how to be happy, not really happy, but we try. We throw ourselves into all sorts of things, from relationships to hobbies to things we watch on TV. We try our best to care for ourselves, to make ourselves happy, to heal from sorrow, and sometimes they work. Often they don’t. We don’t really know what will help, what will heal, what will give joy – but God does.

            At the beginning of our Eucharistic service, we pray together a collect that begins: “Lord God, unto you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid”, and that’s a way to say, “God gets us.” God gets our troubled and failing heart. God gets us when we mess up, and God gets us when, somehow, through it all, we just can’t keep going anymore. God knows what we need, even if we don’t.

            And God is always offering us that hope and that health, that light and that love. Our collect for today, which we’ll be praying in a few minutes, begins, “ Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve.”

            You are always more ready to hear than we are to pray. God, you are always more ready to give to us even when we forget that we need anything at all. God’s like your spouse after a bad day, who maybe gets up a little bit early to cook you breakfast. God’s like a friend who hears in his prayers that maybe you need a hello and so emails or calls you out of the blue. God’s like that fresh, beautiful breeze of autumn after a hot week, or some rain that falls when the sky is orange with smoke. God’s like that book on your shelf that you always think, yeah I’ll get to that one day, and when you finally, for no reason you can think of, take it down to read it, you realize that this is the exact moment you needed it for. God is Jesus Christ, who even though we humans railed against him and hated him and crucified him, even still he prayed for us, and died for us, and was risen for us, because healing is more important, salvation is more important than hatred or anger or death.

            Let God in. God’s trying to heal you, let God in. God’s trying to teach you to be good, like Jesus Christ was good; let God in. God is trying to show you a different way of living, a life that’s more about love than about hate, a life that’s more about hope than about despair, a life that’s more about community than about division; let God in. A bird sings when you’re really angry about something so that God can sing in your heart. An old friend calls when you’re in the depths of sorrow because God put it into the friend’s heart to remember you. And when you’re about to say that really ugly thing because you aren’t thinking, there’s God’s voice, saying just what he said at Jesus’ baptism and on the mountain during the Transfiguration: “This is the voice of my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. Turn again to the Lord.

            God is giving. God is hope. God is community. God is salvation. God is calm. God is joy. God is all that is good and holy, for God is Goodness and Holiness. And God is saying, even now, and always and always, Turn to me, turn to my love, turn to life beyond all the wayward paths of this world. And if you can’t right now, if you’re just not listening right now, well, I’ll just keep on calling you, keep on calling out this voice of love and hope. I’ll be here. I am here. I am always here. For the length of eternity which has no end.

            So turn, turn to the Lord. Open your heart. Let God’s love in.

Jonah’s Anger

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20
September 20th, 2020

Today’s Readings are:
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here to read these lessons.

       The story of Jonah is like a really good kids’ book: you can get a lot out of it when you’re young, but it only gets better and better as you grow up. You probably know the kind of books that I’m talking about. There are some books that we’re reading the girls even now that, really, they’re great for being five or two years old. There’s one called “Where’s my nose” that’s literally about figuring out where your nose is. There’s books about simple friendship, basic books about nature or space or animals: dogs go bark bark and cows go moo. They’re important for founding how a kid thinks about the world, how a child interacts with others and with God and God’s Creation, but when kids get older, they move on to other books with more difficult themes. They age up.

       But there are other books that only get better as you age. They teach you so much when you’re young, just like these other books, but you never seem to put them away. You turn to them when you’ve grown up a little, thinking, yeah, this book is old hat now. I’ve learned this lesson. I’ve gained that wisdom. But then you dive deep into the world of the book and you find that it’s far richer than you had ever imagined. You’re a beginner again, ready and willing to drink from these deep waters you thought you knew.

       I think Jonah is just this sort of book. Thinking back to Sunday School as a kid, this is the story I remember best. It’s the Jonah and the whale story. And I think one of the reasons we all probably remember it is because it allows Sunday school teachers countless crafts to drive the story home. It’s a great visual story with a pretty steady lesson: that we often try to get so far away from God that we do silly things like throw ourselves into the ocean. We might not know where Tarshish is, but we know that the inside of a whale is dark and dreadful. And yet God finds us anyway, rescues us, brings us back to the light and love of his presence, sets us back on our feet, dusts us off, and keeps on walking with us. For kids of any age, be they five or eighteen, this is an important lesson. It’s not only adults who face dark times. It’s not only adults who feel distanced from God. Stories like Jonah’s give us a chance to remind children that God’s love, to quote a children’s Bible, is a never failing, never giving up, always and everywhere kind of love.

       And the story of Jonah keeps on teaching this lesson to us even as we get older. And God knows that we need to hear this lesson again and again. Becoming a Christian, becoming an adult and mature member of the faith, whether if it’s when we’re baptized as adults or make a public affirmation of our faith in Confirmation, or whatever, becoming a Christian doesn’t mean that we’re free from doubt or grief or sorrow, or that our lives are suddenly peachy keen hunky dory. More often the Christian life challenges us, challenges us to the foundation of our being. It’s often said among the saints of the Church that the further one gets down the path of a godly life, grace might be more powerful and apparent, but the path only gets harder. More is asked of us the deeper we go.

       But we know that, right? We know that the beginning levels of anything are only the beginning levels. If I have a really great round of mini-golf and start gloating that my skills at golf are unmatched, you might look at me askance. Or if I plink out Mary had a Little Lamb on four of the black keys on a piano, then swivel around and, with a proud smile, ask for your applause and praise, I would probably receive silence. We show our skills at anything we do, whether it’s golf or playing an instrument or living a Christian life, when we are challenged.

       And that challenge of the Christian life might not be (and I hope for all of us it isn’t, but who knows) the kind of life that many saints had to live, where they ended up not just saints but martyrs. But a challenging Christian life is not only one where our physical life is on the line. The Christian life is a challenge because what we try to do is, as the collect this morning says, we try to not be anxious about earthly things but to love heavenly things. The martyrs loved their heavenly, holy faith, given to them by God in the Holy Spirit more than their earthly bodies. But I’ve known a number of people who have sacrificed their careers because their mother or father needed to be cared for in the last months of their lives. I’ve known many, many teachers who have said yeah the money’s not good and the hours are hard and some people revile us but you know what, those kids need someone in their lives who takes them seriously beyond all costs. And I’ve seen kids turn their backs on the mocking of their peers to sit with that one belittled student, and not because there’s some hidden benefit but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

       When Jonah’s talking to God here, and God’s trying to teach Jonah a lesson, Jonah says something that at first surprises us but then looks just too familiar: “Is it right to be angry”? God asks. “Yes,” says Jonah, “angry enough to die.”

       I don’t want to know what he’s talking about. I want to come to Jonah’s response and say, “What in the world do you mean, man? What do you mean that you’re angry enough to die? How could you be angry enough to die? I’ve never felt that before.” But I’d be lying. I know that depth of anger. I know that depth of sorrow and loneliness and concern. I’ve seen it in family members, in friends, in those I minister to, and, yes, even in myself. I see that anger in our nation right now, where we are so angry, so deeply, deeply angry, angry enough to die. I wish I didn’t know what he’s talking about, but I do.

       And this is a hard lesson God is teaching Jonah, one that I never thought of as a kid, but that the stories and crafts in Sunday school about being in the bottom of a whale, those prepared me for this really hard lesson. Because what God’s doing isn’t just nagging poor Jonah or belittling him, but showing him that the answer to the great mysteries of life, of living in a world wracked with frustration and despair, the answer isn’t to get angry enough to die but to love enough to die.

We talk about Jonah as a sort of Jesus: he was three days in the belly of a whale and then came out again, just like Jesus was dead three days, then was raised. But it was Jesus Christ, God himself, who went down into that whale and got Jonah out. It’s Jesus Christ who is sitting near this angry, resentful man, so angry that the salvation of an entire city doesn’t move him; it’s Jesus Christ who’s sitting there trying to save that person out such utter hatred. It’s Jesus Christ who kicked Saul off a horse, Saul, who would one day become St. Paul, but who was Saul, and who was going around persecuting followers of Jesus even to the death, it was Jesus himself who kicked that Saul off his horse with a beam of light and turned him into the apostle to the gentiles. Jesus doesn’t bat an eye when he sees darkness. He’s already faced death on a cross to save us, to save you, from an eternity of death. Jesus loved us enough to die for us, because he knew that dying was the only way to live.

       We find life only in Jesus, not in us. For Jesus is life, and death. But it is death to our anger, our sorrow, our despair, those great gaping whales, whose mouths are utterly shrouded in the blackest night, to which Jesus brings death. He brings to our souls, our hopes, our joys, and all that is good that we have ever glimpsed, to these Jesus brings life, and life eternally, one magnificent day after the next. So what else is there to do but turn, yet again, to Jesus.

Praying to God

The fifteenth day after Pentecost
Proper 19
September 13th, 2020

Today’s readings are:
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

If you don’t have a Bible handy, you can find these readings here.

        At the end of our prayer service this morning, we’re going to pray something called “the Supplication.” This is a short liturgy from our prayer book that’s used at particularly rough times. As the rubric says, it’s to be used especially in times of war, or of national anxiety, or of disaster.

        We’re not at war, but our nation is certainly anxious. All week I’ve had friends and family contact me from Texas to New England, asking me if my family and I are alright, if our church is alright, and (and this really touched me) if there’s anything that they can do. They want to help, they want to do something to help, in the Church we’d say that they want to be the hands and legs of God, bringing life and hope to those in need.

        And you know, I’ve kinda been feeling the same way. At the beginning of the week, when our local fire started, I was kinda concerned. The sky was orange, my allergies and asthma started acting up, and Helene and I started thinking about what we’d do if we had to evacuate. And while the local fire is still a concern, we’re not at the edge of our seats, our cars packed, waiting for the call to get out. Our fire is much more manageable than the ones going on up north and to the east of us. In this place of relative safety, I want to do something to help.

        What can we do? Well, there’s a lot of things that we can do. We can donate to the Red Cross and other charitable organizations. We can give to the bishop’s discretionary fund, which is probably the quickest way to get funds to those churches in need. And when things begin to settle down, and people start returning to towns and homes that might have been destroyed, people will need a lot of help rebuilding. And their hearts will need our strength and our fortitude to help them pick up the pieces and begin anew.

        And, of course, there’s prayer. This morning, while there are fires going on right now, when people are packing up their homes and cars right here in Oregon, we’re sitting in our church and praying the supplication. Now, I’ve heard some people ask me, not here, but I’ve heard folks saying, “Okay, great, prayer’s just fine, but I don’t want to just pray. I want to do. I want to do something hat will matter.”

        And, you know, that’s good. It’s good want to help out. It’s good to feel the moving of the spirit to go to those in the most need, to donate time and money and goods, to help those who are without. In doing this we are listening to the call of Christ and following him in his ministry. For in Christianity, we don’t just naval gaze. We don’t sit around just working on our own stuff, hoping for some vague spiritual renewal and health. No, we go out of our doors, our red doors to symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit, and bring the healing power and love of God into the world. That is one of the calls of the Gospel, and that is one of the axes upon which we structure our lives.

        But there’s also prayer, and prayer is never “just prayer.” Prayer is not a bunch of nice words that we say to make us or maybe someone else feel better. Prayer isn’t a private hope that things turn out well, and prayer isn’t completed only when we get off our rears and do something in the world. Prayer itself is one o the ways that we help. It’s also a call from God. It’s also a Christian responsibility. Praying is also living the life of Jesus Christ.

        But prayer isn’t magic, either. When I pray for St. Martin’s in Shady Grove, or their deacon Allan, who you all might remember from my installation two years ago, when I pray for him and his church, it’s not my words making things better as if I’m casting a spell. I’m not making a wish when I pray, like Pinocchio made a wish to be a real boy, or Aladdin made a wish to be a prince. Prayer isn’t about us. It’s not about how much effort we put into it or how much spiritual muscle we flex when we say the Our Father. Prayer is about healing, because it’s about God.

        We learn from the Bible and from our lives as Christians, that when we pray, God listens. God may not answer those prayers directly, for whatever reason, but God will still answer those prayers with his presence and with his Life. You see, prayers aren’t yes or no questions. Prayers to God aren’t like automatic teller machines, where if you push the right buttons and have your passcode, money will come out. Prayer isn’t like a teenager asking his parents if he can use their car, or a young kid asking if she can have dessert even though she didn’t really do a good job finishing her dinner.

        Prayer is the presence of God in our lives. Prayer is the turning to God’s presence, and this is always the answer to our prayers, for that is the purpose of prayer. We hear in our Psalm this morning about this same healing presence, how God separates us from our sin as far as East is from West, that God loves us as a parent loves a child – deeply, openly, and for eternity. And it is in prayer that we turn to that love, turn to that mercy and understanding, turn to those open arms that are welcoming in ways that wish we could only see in our dreams.

        So let’s pray. Let’s pray, knowing that what we are doing is leading to health and salvation beyond any of our knowing. Let us pray because God has offered us that health even though we’re not all that great at living good, healthy lives, but God loves us anyway. Let’s pray because when Paul says to pray always, he doesn’t mean that we should be reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over and over again but that we should live prayer, because we are Christians, and that’s what Christians are called to do. Let’s pray because people out there need us, and they need God, and prayer is, with Christ, the gateway to Heaven. Let’s pray because Jesus prayed. Let’s pray because it was God, and no other, who taught us what it means to truly, truly love.

The Cross of Jesus Christ

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2020

Today’s readings are
Jeremiah 15:15-21
Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

If you don’t have a Bible handy, click here for these readings.

I waited until Saturday afternoon to write the sermon for this week. And that’s not usual for me. Usually, I take Friday morning aside, sit with the readings, pray about them, think about them, turn them over in my mind and heart and spirit, and then write. And I like doing it this way. Friday mornings are kinda footholds in the week for me. They’re sure things. They’re sure times when I know that, whatever happens throughout the week, whatever craziness and busyness that happens, I’ve got Friday morning to sit down with the Holy Spirit and ask God: what do you want me to say to your people this week? Sometimes I wrestle with the Spirit, like Jacob wrestling with God out in the desert; sometimes I have a pretty easy time. But whatever the case, it’s always a holy time for me.

      But this week was different. The electing convention was yesterday morning, and I just knew that, no matter what happened, whether we elected someone or whether there was a contested election, that there’d be something else I needed to preach about, some movement of the Spirit, some joy, some hope, some love, that would smack me in the face on Saturday morning. And there was. The Spirit of God touched my spirit, and I wondered: goodness, how do I sort all this out enough to say something coherent about it? What do I say? Should I just stand up there in front of folks on Sunday morning clapping my hands and clicking my heels? ‘Cause that’s how I felt.

      And this is, in fact, an image of Christianity. Not just the clapping my hands and clicking my heels part, but the quiet part, too. There are times in our faith where we are settled, quiet, thoughtful. There are times when the Spirit gives us rest – and not just any rest, like when we’re asleep, or when we just take a break between big jobs, but real rest. True rest. Rest that Jesus talks about when he says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” This is rest that brings tears to the eyes, rest beyond hope, rest beyond anything that we have ever dreamt of, for it is a taste of the rest prepared for us in Heaven for eternity. True, holy, godly, rest.

      And then there’s the other side: the energy, the fullness, the overwhelming joy. For the Holy Spirit does not just comfort, the Spirit also urges on, fills us up with life everlasting that makes us want to dance like King David danced, to sing out our joy with the psalmist, to run around like a silly heart all wacky-like, shouting from the roof-tops that God is among us and offers us Salvation and Love and everything Good and Beautiful and True with open and willing hands. Christianity isn’t just about the quiet, it’s also about the whoo-hoo and the hooray, the ‘did you just see that!?’, the ‘isn’t this the best thing that you’ve ever seen in your entire life!?’ It’s the smile so wide and the laugh so hearty that all semblance of sorrow and grief disappear, and we catch for a moment a glimpse of that eternal joy that has no ending.

      It’s about both, Christianity – joy and quiet, rest and a rising heart, tears of relief and tears from laughing too hard. And here’s the thing: it’s not just about one and then the other but both of them at the same moment. To rest even as our hearts leap for joy, to cry out in laughter in the gentle quiet, to live a life of the noon-day sun and of the setting sun, when the birds sing their night songs and the sky slowly fades to dark. It’s about both, for Christianity is about Jesus – and about the Cross.

      For Christians, the Cross is a paradox. It’s about Death and it’s about Life. It’s about the grief and hatred that lies at the heart of us all and about the Voice that calls us to live, to truly, truly live. We decorate our churches with it, wear it on necklaces, print it on our prayerbooks, make the sign of it on our bodies, and have it as our symbol, an image of torture and of Eternal Life. And we as Christians do not turn away from either.

      I learned this on Good Friday, that day that is one of the two only days of fasting in the Episcopal Church, the only day when black is the liturgical color, and yet the day that we still call Good. I’ve told this story before, but it bears being told again.

This was in Sewanee, where seminarians, university students, clergy, community members, pretty much everyone gathers on Good Friday to carry this huge cross down the street, praying the way of the cross at intervals. This cross is so huge that it takes four or five people to lift it. And the whole procession ends at the university chapel, a church so big that you would think it a cathedral. Here the cross is placed before the altar, standing straight up, and in the dark of the church, lit only by the sun coming in through the tall stained-glass windows, we pray, singing songs of grief and yet hope as well, songs of sorrow and longing, holy songs, the Church’s songs.

      Now, during these songs, some people go forward and kneel before the cross to pray. My first year in Sewanee I didn’t go forward. It wasn’t really my thing (I thought). But the second year I did. It was important, I thought, I don’t know why. Gwendolyn was with me, maybe that was it. Or maybe being in seminary so long had formed me into having that kinda piety. I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I went forward and knelt, Gwendolyn in my arms, and prayed at the foot of the cross.

      Now, if you’ve never prayed, kneeling, before a cross, let me tell you that it is a harrowing experience. Good Friday only made it moreso. Time kinda opens up, and you are there with Jesus on the Cross, in all his Passion. But there is a lightness, too, a beauty and a hope that seems so strange for kneeling before this object of torture and death. For on that Cross, in that Passion, in Jesus’ death, he saved us all. It is a lightness that led me, after kneeling there for a few minutes in prayer, to stand up and kiss that hard wood – and then to invite my little infant girl to kiss it as well, which she did.

      The Cross challenges everything that we are. It challenges us not just to live nice, happy lives, or to kinda try harder, or that maybe we should be nicer. The Cross challenges everything we are. It reaches down to the depths of our being and asks us not a question in words but asks us with the image of the Cross. And I can only translate that question with images: the image of a little girl kissing the cross, the image of a hospital room where God is present even in death, the image of a life torn asunder by hatred or depression and yet healed and made whole. For in Christ all die, and all are brought to eternal life.

      The Cross has been set in your own heart. In Baptism, nurtured by the Eucharist and the other Sacraments; in the call of the Holy Spirit and the Life with find with God; and in our lives in the Church, which is the Body of Jesus Christ – the Cross has been set in your heart. It is a thing of surprise; yes of pain sometimes, when we realize our sins; of grief, for it is there in all the deaths we have the honor to walk beside and, so too, our own; and it is of joy, joy beyond the walls of this world, joy as sharp as swords and as light as a feather. For the Cross is a door, it is an invitation, it is a call, from Jesus Christ, God himself, to eternal life. So open that door, take that hand, lift your voice and your heart to the Lord of all. And sing for eternity that song of the angels: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.