Category Archives: Lent

Following the way of the cross

From the Society of St. John the Evangelist -- www.ssje.org

From the Society of St. John the Evangelist — http://www.ssje.org

A Facebook friend whose opinion I respect, William Henry Benefield BSG, posted yesterday about reading the Passion Gospel during Holy Week:

“Perhaps one day, parishes throughout the world on Palm Sunday and Good Friday will have all of us present — the baptized Eucharistic assembly — saying or chanting the part of Christ during the Passion and not playing the ‘crowd’ as our liturgical tradition so often dictates. Our theology teaches us we are the Body of Christ … so it looks and sounds rather strange, not to mention theologically questionable, for us to be shouting ‘Crucify, Crucify’ and ‘Give us Jesus Barabbas.’ Maybe one day we the Church will finally realize who we actually are, break with the previous liturgical tradition when chanting the Passion on these two sacred days, and claim our true identity in the world.”

I’ll admit I had never heard of that being done before, as William said he had experienced at an Episcopal church in New York City.

His thoughtful post got me thinking, and I enjoyed figuring out why I disagree with him.

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It seems to me that while we are the Body of Christ, we are not Jesus. The tension in our lives of faith is between living “in Christ” or “following the crowd.”

I think playing the part of the crowd in the Passion is entirely appropriate as a way of realizing that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 4:8). It also helps us accomplish the movement Paul describes to the Colossians: “You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator” (Col. 3:9b-10).

Our creator, “being found in human form … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).

In our old self, I think we are the crowd, preferring spectacle, resistant to change, and easily led. By the grace of God and through the self-offering of Jesus, we are given a new way.

Being the Body of Christ means stripping off the old self and following the way of the cross instead of following the crowd.

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While I completely agree with the ancient homily for Holy Saturday that William shared — “together [with Christ] we are now one undivided person” — I’m also conscious at this time in my life that I am not always the “one person” I want to be. Like Paul, I “find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21).

Like AA members do when they share their stories of encouragement, hope, and strength, perhaps we in the Church use the Passion Gospel during Holy Week to remind ourselves “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

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The collect for today, Monday in Holy Week, is very familiar to us as the Collect for Fridays at Morning Prayer.

I hope it will remind you as you journey with Jesus during this Holy Week what you used to be like, what happened as a result of his obedience and death, and what you are like now.

May this Holy Week open the way to life and peace for you.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99).

Enthroned above the flood

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The Lord sits enthroned above the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore.
The Lord shall give strength to his people;
the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

(Psalm 29:10-11)

May this Holy Week be for you a time when the flood waters of your busy life recede just a bit and the Holy Spirit comes to you with a glimpse, even just a slender branch, of the Tree on which our Lord is enthroned.

“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double” (Zech. 9:12).

May your worship this Palm Sunday and throughout this Holy Week renew the hope that is in you, that “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

Prayer for Mission

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

The power and the presence of God

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The Fifth Sunday in Lent + Healing Sunday

Sermon given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church + Menasha, WI

About 46 years ago, I was baptized, my Episcopal priest father scooping the water over my head with his hand, and my parents and godparents promising on my behalf to renounce Satan and all his works, to turn to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to see that I was brought up in the Christian faith and life.

About 35 years ago, I was confirmed, renewing that commitment to Jesus Christ and promising (with God’s grace) to follow him as my Savior and Lord. My godfather, Bishop Folwell, laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would empower me for God’s service.

About 25 years ago, Katrin and I married each other, joining hands, and promising to “have and to hold, from this day forth, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.”

A couple months after that, a high school friend of Katrin’s invited me to attend a John Guest evangelistic crusade in Chicago. Seriously? An evangelistic crusade? People waving their hands in the air? As the altar call began, my skeptical self was confronted by a vision of Jesus in person. That night, I accepted Jesus as my Savior and made a mature commitment to follow him as my Lord.

About 18 years ago, Bishop Frank Griswold laid his hands on my head and made me a deacon in God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I promised not only to be loyal to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Episcopal Church; but more importantly “to make Christ and his redemptive love known to those among whom I live, and work, and worship.”

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We make promises before we fully understand what they will mean for us and for our lives. We vow to follow, and then we find out where we’re going.

Our namesake Thomas exemplifies this pattern. Things are coming to a head between Jesus and the religious authorities, and they could expect trouble in the days ahead.

“Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (John 11:14-16).

We make promises in time, without fully understanding them, and it’s only over time that we come to appreciate how they will impact our futures.

But underneath these promises, in all our lives, in all of the details of what we promise and who we share our lives with, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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A little more than 5 months ago, head in my hands, I admitted that I was powerless over alcohol and that my life had become unmanageable, and I made a decision to turn my life and my will over to the care of God as I understand Him.

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Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is such an accurate picture of those moments.

“The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’” (Ezekiel 37:1-3).

When we admit we are powerless, time stops, and in the present moment we see how broken and dry and dead we have become. It’s only through that awareness that we begin to rely on God entirely. “Can these bones live? O Lord God, you know.” The meetings I now go to, the 12 Steps I now follow like millions before me are about learning to live a sober life, sober meaning “dependent on God and free from self-centeredness, fear, anger, and resentment.”

As our Gospel lesson continues (John 11:21-27), Jesus is almost to Bethany, and there is Martha – brimming with anger, seething with resentment: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” What she really means is, “if you had been here, I wouldn’t be in pain right now.”

Her faith tries to reassert itself: “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha says to him – focusing back on her pain, her frustration – that’s no help to me, but sure, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Jesus looks her straight in the eyes – no hiding – and says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

She blinks, realizing as she looks back at him that her trust is stronger than her grief, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha trusts Jesus, and even knows him to be the Messiah, but she actually has no idea the breadth of his power or the depth of his love for her, for Mary, and for their brother, for his brother Lazarus.

What is happening here is that, faced with our grief and frustration, faced with our anger and resentment, faced with our fear of death, God’s heart breaks.

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“God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart” (John 1:18), stands with us and weeps.

When God’s eternal Spirit, blowing through all creation, touches the tears on Jesus’s cheeks, even death is no match – even graves spring open.

Underneath our helplessness, underneath our fear and resentment, in all of the details of how we have failed ourselves and those we love, underneath even our own death is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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Until he died about 10 years ago, there was never a time in my life when my father did not pray for me. I can still hear his voice and feel his hand on my forehead:

Rodger, I lay my hands upon you and anoint you with oil, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; beseeching our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you and you may enjoy that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve him now and always. Amen. 

Woven throughout my life, woven into the fabric of the promises I have made to God and the admission of my failures, is another pattern of healing prayers being offered on my behalf.

One of my first conscious memories of healing prayers other than my father’s is from about 30 years ago on my first Happening – Happening number 12 in the Diocese of Albany. I loved the singing, but I was rapidly losing my voice. I asked the Spiritual Director to pray for me at the healing service, and it felt like there was soothing honey pouring down my throat – for the rest of the weekend I could sing freely and loudly, even hitting the high notes in “I am the bread of life.” Thirty years later, and I’m still singing at Happenings – this last one was Happening number 67 in the Diocese of Fond du Lac.

Here at St. Thomas, I know myself to be surrounded by healing prayer, whether it’s in the chapel after the Eucharist, or here at the rail during a healing service, or at birthday and anniversary prayers during the Peace, or through special prayers for healing after my foot surgery. Your healing ministry also took the form of an invitation – since I have been home more often these last few months – to join the Thursday morning men’s Bible study group.

We ask for healing – we accept God’s invitation to health – before we fully understand what it will mean, before we fully grasp what wholeness may free us to do.

We admit our vulnerability, and find that, paradoxically, our weakness and honesty helps to strengthen others.

We are healed in eternity – because in praying for healing we are made open to God’s eternal love for all of creation. Like with Lazarus, even death cannot stop God’s love.

Underneath these healing prayers, in all our lives, in all of the details of our sickness and pain, in all the frustration of our limitations, in the loneliness and separation we feel, in all the push and pull of our relationships, underneath it all is the presence and the power of God continually working for our health and our salvation.

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If you desire to know the presence and the power of God in your life more fully, I will invite you in a moment to come forward and ask a member of the healing team to pray for you.

Who knows what that healing will mean for you, who knows where it will take you, who knows what it may set you free to do with and for others?

If you’d like to know “that victory of life and peace which will enable you to serve God now and always,” I invite you to come forward now and ask.

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Frost and sleet, ice and cold

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Since our furnace conked out last night, Morning Prayer today is positively medieval.

I can’t quite see my breath as I say the Kyrie Pantokrator (BCP 90) and the Benedictus Dominus Deus (BCP 92), but my nose is definitely cold.

If I had a surplice at home, it would be appropriate to wear it “over my furry garment” (Lat., super pelliceum). The cats cluster round to help, so at least my legs are nice and warm.

Perhaps monks in their choir stalls sit shoulder to shoulder for the same reason.

I hope your prayers today warm you with a sense of connection to Christians past and present whose voices rise in praise to God winter and summer alike.

The strong Name of the Trinity

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St. Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever,
by power of faith, Christ’s Incarnation;
his baptism in the Jordan river;
his death on cross for my salvation;
his bursting from the spiced tomb;
his riding up the heavenly way;
his coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
of the great love of cherubim;
the sweet “Well done” in judgement hour;
the service of the seraphim;
confessors’ faith, apostles’ word,
the patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea,
around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
his eye to watch, his might to stay,
his ear to hearken to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
his heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

See Hymnary.org for the text and music of this magnificent hymn.

Of a Missionary

Almighty and everlasting God, we thank you for your servant Patrick, whom you called to preach the Gospel to the people of Ireland. Raise up in this and every land evangelists and heralds of your kingdom, that your Church may proclaim the unsearchable riches of our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 247)

Out of the depths

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Glory to you, Lord God of our fathers; *
you are worthy of praise; glory to you.
Glory to you for the radiance of your holy Name; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you in the splendor of your temple; *
on the throne of your majesty, glory to you.
Glory to you, seated between the Cherubim; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

Glory to you, beholding the depths; *
in the high vault of heaven, glory to you.
Glory to you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; *
we will praise you and highly exalt you for ever.

I’m not sure these were the exact words Joseph said to himself as he looked up from the bottom of the pit his brothers had thrown him into (Genesis 37:12-24).

It’s kind of strange that they’re the words we say (Canticle 13) right after we read that lesson from Genesis at Morning Prayer today.

But it’s also kind of appropriate, this juxtaposition between the bottom of the pit and God’s glory, especially during the season of Lent.

Lent makes us mindful how far we are from the glory God intends for us.

Lent reminds us in Paul’s words that “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:26-27).

This particular Lent reminds me, as I work the steps in my recovery process, that I “could not manage [my] own [life]; that probably no human power could have relieved [my problem]; that God could and would if He were sought” (Big Book 60).

The collect we usually read on Tuesday mornings also feels especially appropriate when we consider God’s goodness — God’s choosing us — in the face of our own sin and the predicaments we find ourselves in.

A Collect for Peace

O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom: Defend us, your humble servants, in all assaults of our enemies; that we, surely trusting in your defense, may not fear the power of any adversaries; through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 99)

Reaching forth our hands in love

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Today’s matchup in Lent Madness — you are participating in Lent Madness, right? — features Charles Henry Brent, first missionary bishop to the Phillipines and first bishop of Western New York.

Celebrity blogger Laura Darling writes: “After serving as the senior chaplain of the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, he became bishop of Western New York. Prior to this, he established himself as a leader in the ecumenical movement, having attended the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. He continued to work for the cause of Christian unity, presiding at the World Conference of Faith and Order in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1927.”

However, Brent is also the author of one of the loveliest prayers for mission in Morning Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP 101)

On this Friday, as on so many others, may Jesus clothe us in his own Spirit as we make this our prayer.

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Step Four on Ash Wednesday

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Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.”
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.

(Psalm 32:5-6)

A couple of weeks ago my AA sponsor and I knelt together as I prayed that God would “relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do his will … and take away my difficulties, that my victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy power, Thy love, and Thy way of life” (Big Book 63).

This prayer of abandonment to God’s will is what AA calls Step Three and what the Book of Common Prayer calls in the Ash Wednesday liturgy “a right beginning of our repentance, and a mark of our mortal nature” (BCP 265).

Today Lent begins, and for me a very particular process of self-examination and repentance.

I have reached the point in my recovery where it’s time to begin Step Four — to conduct a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of myself — and then to take Step Five, to admit to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs.

Though I have been in the Church all my life, I am beginning to understand for myself the wisdom of traditional practices like Confession, what the Book of Common Prayer calls Reconciliation of a Penitent (BCP 447). We need at times to write down what we’ve done wrong, to say it out loud to another person, and to hear from them our Lord’s assurance of forgiveness.

Lent is a particularly appropriate time for this hard and holy work, and I am embracing it gladly as my main observance this year.

And now, O Lord, I bend the knee of my heart,
and make my appeal, sure of your gracious goodness.
(Canticle 14, BCP 91)

Whatever you may decide to do to mark this Lent, I invite you to take it seriously but joyfully.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer (BCP 265).