A Celebration of Sacred Song

A Celebration of Sacred Song program

Opening:

VOLUNTARY prelude in E-Flat Major J.S. Bach The Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major by J.S. Bach is played today for thematic reasons. This monumental organ work is considered by many to be Bach’s greatest testament to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; hence its appropriateness in a sacred concert in which the Nicene Creed forms a central role. In this great organ piece, as in so many other works, Bach’s theology is supported by numerology. The predominance of the number three is impossible to overlook: the piece is in the key of three flats; the prelude has three themes; and the three sections of the fugue end in measures 36, 81 and 117 – all multiples of three. Enjoy Bach’s genius as preacher as well as his more obvious pre-eminence as composer.

Opening Hymn: Christ for the World We Sing

Welcome by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski, Rector, Christ Episcopal Church

HYMN 431, “The stars declare his glory

 

ANTHEM Magnificat Primi Toni a 8 Aeolian Chorale Marshall Dicks, Conductor

 

 

HYMN 82, “Of the Father’s love begotten” Divinum mysterium Introduction: organ setting by Gerre Hancock

 

 

ANTHEM O Nata Lux Lauridsen Lauds on the Feast of the Transfiguration

Aeolian Chorale Marshall Dicks, Conductor

 

HYMN 168, “O sacred head, sore wounded”

Introduction: organ setting by Johannes Brahms Stanza 1: all in unison
Stanza 2: all in parts
Stanza 3: all in parts
Stanza 4: organ setting by Johannes Brahms Stanza

5: all in unison

HYMN 504, “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” Spiritus

Introduction: organ setting by Maurice Duruflé Stanzas 1 and 2: all
Interlude: organ setting by Maurice Duruflé Stanzas 3 and 4 : lower voices only

Interlude: organ setting by Maurice Duruflé Stanzas 5 and 6 : upper voices only Interlude: organ setting by Maurice Duruflé Stanza 7: all

Coda: organ setting by Maurice Duruflé

Veni Creator

 

ANTHEM Evening Hymn                             Gardiner

 

Aeolian Chorale Marshall Dicks, Conductor David Hufford, Accompanist

“Fantasy on the hymn tune Moscow” commissioned by Christ Church for the 150th Anniversary, composer Bruce Neswick, Organist, Sean Jackman

 

Finale: HYMN 537, Christ for the world we sing

VOLUNTARY Fugue in E-Flat Major                         J.S. Bach

Easter Sunday

 

Although the house resided on a busy four lane street, it had a wood deck off the back, that over looked 2-1/2 acres of grassy yard and a narrow strip of woods. After we moved in we realized that under the deck various animals had built dens: woodchuck, possum, rabbits.

One year we were startled to discover that a red fox had moved in under our deck. Actually it was a couple, a male and a female red fox. By late winter, the baby foxes made an appearance.

As spring unfolded we were delighted to see the fox family, usually late at night, out in the yard, playing. Papa fox would place himself way out on the perimeter of the yard to act as watch guard – his eyes intent, surveying the area, protecting his brood. Meanwhile momma fox brought one or two babies out of the den and taught them to follow, and play, and become fox. Although we only saw one or two at a time, as they grew in size, we saw more and more, a total of 8 baby fox. For the next few months the fox family and the Pilarski family learned to live side by side. Even our dogs would watch quietly through the sliding glass door as the fox babies played and learned about life.

Easter came early that year. I remember celebrating at church and then with family. It was late when we finally headed home. I anticipated a quiet cup of tea. But no sooner had we arrived home than we discovered that something was amiss. Our animals knew it first – the dogs were pacing and grumbling, the cats positioning themselves in one window, then another, exuding a low yowl. Dan and I began to investigate the situation. We discovered that one of the baby fox had fallen down a window well. Three feet below the surface of the ground, the baby was stuck at the basement level of our house. It appears that in their nocturnal playing the baby had wandered off and fell into this open chasm. The momma fox was beside her self, trying to look out for the other seven babies and call her fallen baby back to her. But the baby was unable to climb up a three foot drop lined in sheet metal. The pitiful cries of the momma and the frightened mewing of the baby fox set my dogs and cats on edge.

Dan and I called the wildlife rescue company, but they would not intervene.  We knew better than to try and fish the baby out with our hands, and we didn’t have a long net. Nor could we open the window from the basement and grab it. We knew we had to find a way to get the baby out, somehow. Finally Dan decided to build a ladder to put into the well and hope the baby could and would climb out.

Using a 1 x 6 board as the base, we nailed wooden strips across the board creating a solid platform with steps. As we built the ladder, the crying escalated. The dogs got more anxious, the cats yowled louder, and it took more effort to keep our kids calm. Then, as if the chaos wasn’t bad enough and the anxiety high enough, and our fatigue great enough, we realized that a second baby fox had fallen into another well, and so we now had to build two ladders.

Uncertain what the momma fox would do, we cautiously went outside with the ladders. Hearts thumping we wondered if her protective instincts would prevent her from letting us help? I kept a careful eye on momma fox, while Dan slowly placed a ladder in each of the wells. The momma watched intently, never moving. She seemed to trust us, to understand that we were trying to help. Silence filled the air, sharp with anticipation, and, hope…

Back inside the house, we turned off all the lights. In the dark we watched as the momma fox gently called the babies. To our amazement, one baby figured out how to climb the ladder. As the baby came to the surface of the ground the momma caught her by the scruff of its neck and hauled it to the safety of the den. And then the second baby climbed out. And the momma grabbed it too and brought it to the den. Within thirty minutes of placing the ladders in the wells the babies were safe. And our house was quiet.

It’s morning and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb where Jesus is buried. She’s traumatized from the brutality of the day before. Weeping, distressed, wild sounds escape from her lungs. Then someone calls her name, and like the baby fox climbing from the depths of the well, Mary’s awareness rises, and a new clarity emerges. She recognizes the voice. It is Jesus, Rabbouni, the teacher, it is the resurrection. It is new life.

The resurrection is the great mystery of the Christian faith.  We call the resurrection the “Paschal Mystery.” It means God’s love poured out anew in the light of Christ, symbolized by light from the tall Paschal candle. For Christians, Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s love. Jesus manifests God’s love through acts of compassion and justice. God uses human hands and hearts to manifest God’s love, first through Jesus, and now through us.

Easter reminds us that the deep truth of the Paschal Mystery emerges in and through all of life. In times of joy, God celebrates with us. In times of sorrow, God’s compassion is like a ladder, offering us a way up.  Jesus called to Mary, and in response, she rose from the well of despair with a new awareness, a new sense of reality, hope. It’s Easter. Nothing has changed, and yet, everything is different. Because now, with God’s love in Jesus, made alive through us,  feeding people in mind, body, and spirit, there is hope.

Mary Passion Trilogy, part 3: Mary Magdalene

The Mary Passions: part three: Mary Magdalene written by The Rev. Anne Wolf Fraley with the Rev. Kate Hennessy-Keimig  and The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski,

The Mary Passions were inspired by Terri C. Pilarski

Presented by Terri Pilarski on April 15, 2017 at The Great Vigil of Easter, Christ Episcopal Church, Dearborn, MI

I had not slept. Since leaving Golgotha I had been overwhelmed by despair. Whether from gray skies and starless nights or the weight of grief pressed against my heart, I do not know. But I did not sleep—my mind raced, struggling to grasp our crushing loss.  Was he truly gone, my beloved Jesus, my friend?

I was there, crouched beside his mother as we watched the wind whip against the bareness of his body, the force of which blew his hair across his face.  I could not turn my eyes from his. I did not want the memory of his suffering to burn itself into my mind, so I looked only at his eyes.  I must tell you, his eyes were extraordinary. They bore the pain of his injury, a tender, forgiving dullness outshone by deep and abiding love. I do not know how such contradictory expressions could be revealed at once, but I should not be surprised. He is no ordinary man.

I remember that my hands were numb. His mother and I clung tightly to one another during those endless hours. She was drained of strength, stumbling several times as she stood faithfully near her son. A merchant whose curiosity had led him off the path as he left the city gates drew a cushion from his stores and brought it to Mary to ease her plight.

Jesus’ breathing became shallow, yet he did not fight what he knew awaited him. He raised his head a bit and looked at us. Upon his mother he looked long and with deep devotion. I felt the tension slip from her being with a deep sigh, and when I looked her face was drawn with comprehension and the tug of peace suggested a smile.  My eyes shifted back to his, and in the deepening darkness of them I saw the world gathered to him.  He did not smile, but the same peace that touched his mother radiated from him. Our eyes locked in wordless farewell, and with one last, penetrating gaze he entrusted his heart and wisdom to me and released his last breath.

Mary sank against me, and I was grateful for the need to tend to her as the enormity of our loss gripped my soul. I remember little else, for which I am glad—no one should endure the agony of love being stolen from them.  What I recall is that we were swallowed by the deep darkness of night, and there remained until the song of the birds alerted us to this dawning day.

We gathered our oil and spices and ventured into the early morning light to go to the tomb. We did not speak. The ritual of this loving obligation to the dead was well known to us, and conversation flowed between us in the sorrowful echoes of our footsteps.

 

It looked as it did when his body was laid to rest two days before. The entrance to the tomb, small but easily accessible, was marked by the scars of its recent hewing, jagged and raw.  I felt oddly comforted by its gaping darkness, as it reflected the state of my own soul—jagged, raw and dark.  Perhaps it was for this reason that I gathered the folds of my dress around me without hesitation and ducked through the opening to confront the reality of my lifeless beloved.

The others followed behind me, and our eyes adjusted to the darkness with growing puzzlement.  “He is not here,” my voice broke the silence after several moments. We looked at one another, fear beginning to creep into our blood. I set the ointment down beside the lonely shroud that had wrapped his body and made my way around the perimeter of the tomb. It was as empty as I felt.

Of a sudden the tomb was filled with light, as though the sun had breached the horizon and directed its rays to illuminate our devastated world.  So vivid was the light that at first we did not see the two men who stood before us in radiating brilliance. It was too much for our heavy hearts to bear, and our knees gave way to our fear as we fell to the ground, averting our gaze from this terrible wonder.

“Do not be afraid,” one of them spoke gently. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”

My thoughts reached deep into the mystery that was this man we all loved, Jesus, whose teaching changed our hearts and thus, our lives.  The experience of him, of what had become known through him, began to take hold and banish the fear that had begun to settle in my heart. I had no answers, but neither was I afraid.  “He is not here,” I heard my voice again, this time with a hint of confidence.  Could it be? Was it possible that the promise of his triumph was more than a metaphor, that it was, in fact, the miracle we were blessed to witness here in this tomb?

“He has risen?” queried one of my companions behind me, and another shouted with excitement, “He is risen!”

In one heartbeat we turned to find the men gone. The light, however, continued to fill the emptiness, permeating our hearts with the fullness of love. Then grief gave way to awareness, and in that shattering awareness we began to leap with a joy that we had never known.

Before we knew it we were rushing from the tomb toward the village, and before long we came upon the place where the disciples had gathered. Peter, hearing our ruckus, got up and began to move toward us. When he saw who he were he stopped, puzzled by our exuberance.  One by one the others got up and moved toward us, and by the time we reached them they were drawn together in a cluster of confusion and concern.

Peter grasped my arms in his hands. “What is it?” he demanded, fearing, I think, that our mourning had given way to delirium. We began to talk all at once, sharing the gleeful news of our Lord’s rising. The significance of our words began to sink in, but they were backing up and turning away, dismissing our claims as fantasy and wishful thinking. Only Peter continued to listen, but doubt, too, clouded his eyes.

At last we fell into silence, and Peter looked at each of us, furrows of weariness and the weight of sin etched across his forehead. “Go home,” he said at last. “You are tired. We are all tired. We will talk soon.”

In stunned silence we turned away and began our walk to the place where we lodged. I turned once to look back, and saw Peter begin to move in the direction from which we had come. Our heads were swimming, our hearts were bursting, and in a daze we returned to the city while the miracle of the morning began to take hold and fill us with hope and expectation.

That evening Peter came to see us, bringing with him the oil and spices we had abandoned at the tomb.  I knew when I saw him enter the doorway that he had seen and believed. His face was no longer ravaged by the bitterness of the last few days, but was illuminated by the light of joy and renewal. I took the jars from him and wrapped my arms around him, and in that moment we felt buoyed by the love that been bequeathed to and would now sustain us.

We talked long into the night until the full impact of all we had witnessed and come to understand was within our reach. Outside the door, stars hidden from view the previous nights seemed to sparkle with a new brightness, and though my heart still ached with loss, peace coursed through my veins like a soothing tonic.

He was risen. The world might appear the same, but in each breath I took I would draw in the power of love as I served God’s people with compassion and mercy. There was joyful news to share about the God of our people, and as the knowledge of that love unfolded in the days to come, lives would be healed and restored, love would bind wounds and forgiveness would open hearts to reconciliation.  Our Lord had work yet to do, and we would be part of it. Amazing, indeed.

 

 

 

Mary Passions Trilogy, part 2: Mary anointing Jesus

 

The Mary Passions: part one, The Mother written by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski with The Rev. Anne Wolf Fraley and The Rev. Kate Hennessy-Keimig

The Mary Passions were inspired by Terri C. Pilarski

Presented by Stephanie Mulkern at Christ Episcopal Church, Dearborn, MI on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017

So Mary rubbed his feet with perfume so precious that its sale might have fed a poor family for a year, an act so lavish that it suggests another layer to her prophecy. There will be nothing economical about this man’s death, just as there has been nothing economical about his life. In him, the extravagance of God’s love is made flesh. In him, the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest.” – Barbara Brown Taylor

“The power and witness of Mary’s discipleship in this story is that she knows how to respond to Jesus without being told. She fullfills Jesus’ love commandment before he even teaches it (e.g., 13:34-35)…. She gives boldly of herself in love to Jesus at his hour, just as Jesus will give boldly of himself in love at his hour… http://gbgm-umc.org/UMW/jesusandwomen/marymartha.stm (Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 703)

I know what you think of me, even all these years later. Some of you know me as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus. Yes. Jesus was our friend, my friend – and I was his friend. He knew me, the real me.

Others do not unnamed woman and one, named Luke, even said that I was sinful. Whatever. He never knew the real me, not like Jesus did.

It’s true, I care for  people that others would never touch. I help the poor women, even the Gentile women, give birth. I am a midwife and for that I am considered unclean. I help the dying and comfort them in their final hours with tinctures of herbs to soothe their anxiety and bring them peace. And because I tend to the beginning of life and the end of life, because I touch those that others never would, I am considered unclean, unworthy.

In Jesus, I recognized a kindred soul, another who sees deeply into the pain of this world and yearns to heal it with God’s love. Like Jesus, I seek to bring God’s healing love into the frightened lives of women in pain, of babies entering this world, of children dying, of the old taking their last breath. I bring comfort and love, not with my words, for I am a woman of few words, but with what I do. I listen, I watch, I care.

That night, that last night, I will never forget.

I was nearby and heard the noise from the dinner party. As a woman, I was not allowed in the room, unless I was willing to serve the food or dance for them. But my job was neither to feed nor entertain the men.

I am a student and Jesus is my teacher. I have sat at his feet many times while he taught us about God’s love. And, I am a healer.

Oh my, no! I did not want to go in there. I knew it would cause a stir. And I was tired. It had already been a long day of tending to a woman giving birth. I had with me my alabaster jar of nard. The fragrance always soothes those who are agitated and scared.

But, I knew that Jesus was in the room with them, eating and drinking.  I knew that things were going badly for him. I knew, I just knew, that he knew this too. The Roman soldiers were watching and following him. The chief priests kept a careful eye on him as well. Even his own friends were meeting secretly with government guards and spies. I personally saw Judas meet with a few of them, money exchanged hands. Judas was not to be trusted. I know him and his family, and his greed.

I knew that the end was coming and I was helpless to stop it. I’ve seen it happen before. First the tension mounts as the Roman soldiers apply pressure and then the chief priests decide it’s better for one man to die than it is for the entire temple to be destroyed. And so it goes. Someone is given over to be crucified; one person must die so the rest of us can live in peace—their idea of peace. The chief priests and scribes will do this. And Pilate and Herod and all the others will be placated for a time. I know this because I have been in all of their homes. I have cared for their family members. I am the one called whenever there is a need to care for the suffering. As a caretaker, I am trained to use my senses. I observe everything around me. I see and feel and hear things that are not intended for others to know. And so, of this, of their intent to cause Jesus’ death, I am certain.

And my heart, filled with this awareness, was breaking.

Jesus – who showed compassion to the most vulnerable. Jesus who worked side by side with me, and helped me remember that the work I do is God’s work, even if the people despised me for it. It was Jesus who pointed out our flaws and our idolatry and yet, loved us even more. Jesus – who brought my brother Lazarus back to life. Jesus – who loves everyone. Yes, he was the one they would reject.

I could do nothing to stop it. Money had exchanged hands. The deal was done. I’d warned Jesus, and he knew it too. But not even he would not change the course of these events. He would allow them to unfold as they must.

There was, however, one thing I could do. As one who cares for the dying I could go into that room and anoint him, who was to die, with my oil – my jar of nard.

My legs felt heavy, and although my walk was purposeful, it felt as though I were walking through water. Those few steps to Jesus, my beloved friend, took a lifetime to walk.

I collapsed on the floor before him and took those weary feet into my hands. Dusty and calloused – marked from three long years of walking – I gently held those feet in my warm hands and kissed them. I took one foot and rubbed it clean, massaging the nard into the tired muscles. And then I cared for the other foot. Tears ran down my face. Tears fell on his feet. I could not stop myself! I bathed him in tears and nard.

And then I realized I had no towel to wipe his feet, soaked as they were, in my tears.

My hair would have to do. I uncoiled it from my head and let its length fall to the floor. And I used my hair to wipe his feet and dry my tears.

I knew the others were talking. I could hear the gasps and the guffaws, the men chiding me and calling me names. I heard Judas (that fool!), suggest that MY nard should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Judas, who would have kept the money for himself, had the nerve to suggest that I was being greedy.

Later,  I would stand by as Jesus washed the feet of his friends. Just a few short hours before it was all to end and here he was loving them, the very ones who would turn their backs on him and deny they knew him.

But for now, I was going to give him all the love I had in my heart.

Quietly Jesus spoke. And I knew that he understood everything. He knew how deep my love for him was. He knew how deep my love for God is, a depth of love that mirrored his own. And that was enough. It was enough to know that love conquers everything.

Even death.

The Mary Passions trilogy: part one, The Mother

 

The Mary Passions: part one, The Mother written by The Rev. Kate Hennessy-Keimig with The Rev. Anne Wolf Fraley and The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski,

The Mary Passions were inspired by Terri C. Pilarski

Presented by Carolyn Blackmore on Sunday, April 9, 2017 at Christ Church, Dearborn, MI

Even now, I can’t help but remember those days. At the time I thought I would never forget one single, horrible moment, one thought, one feeling, one word.  But you know, it’s true, time does (mercifully) take the sharp razor’s edge from unbearable pain, makes it tolerable. But there are things I remember, moments that are burnt into my mind and my heart.  Mostly things about him, my beloved son, the child that came to his father and me as a gift from God and who through-out his life never did stop both mystifying and teaching me. But my feelings during those awful hours as he suffered and finally died? Yes, I still remember and can call it all back in a heartbeat….

My sense of unease had been building through those last few weeks; mother’s intuition sensed that all was not well. He had pushed the establishment, powerful people, too far. I wanted to protect him, to tell him to stop…but to stop what? Stop doing what he seemed so clearly called to do? Stop being who he was?

We gathered that last night at the Mount of Olives.  Jesus asked us to stay awake while he prayed. He seemed worried, sad, as he prayed, and I prayed for his safety as I watched. Finally, after a long time, he went to find his friends, and of course, they were sleeping. (My feelings flared then!) I was angry and wondered how they could be so thoughtless. But Jesus was gentle with them, as he often was when they would have tried my patience beyond endurance. He simply asked them why they slept, and asked them to pray for their OWN deliverance.

But their sleeping was nothing to what happened next;  a crowd of people suddenly appeared from the darkness, and Judas, Jesus’ friend,  just walked up to my son and kissed him. “What on earth?” I wondered, but Jesus looked right into his eyes and said, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” Well, total chaos broke out .Peter was flailing around with his sword, and I have to admit, I found myself wishing more of us had weapons. In the confusion a slave’s ear was cut off!  But Jesus told them to stop, and they did.  He healed the slave’s ear. My heart was breaking; I was so proud of him, and so terrified. He stood bravely in front of them all and asked them why they came after him as though he were a dangerous criminal?   He reminded them he had been with them every day, and they hadn’t arrested him.  Then he said something that stopped my tears, nearly stopped my heart:  “But this is your hour, the hour of the power of darkness!”

When they took him to the high priest.  I stayed as close as I could. (My eyes caught his), sending him love, courage. But Peter and his other friends kept their distance.  I heard Peter say to three different people that he wasn’t with Jesus, didn’t even know who he was. That made me so angry.  The last time he said it, Jesus turned and caught Peter’s eye, and something passed between them in that moment, that made Peter run away in tears. Peter told me later that Jesus had predicted he would betray him. “He told me I would deny I ever knew him, not once but three times,  and I simply would not believe that I could ever do that to him,” he said, “But the Teacher knew my heart, just as he always did.”

My next memory is of them making fun of Jesus and beating him. It is a mother’s nightmare to see her son being treated this way. I felt such rage, such helpless fury as I watched them blindfold him; call him names, even spit on him.  I couldn’t bear to stand there and watch, but I couldn’t bear to leave either. So I stayed, weeping silently as the other women held me, grieved with me.

I did not sleep that night, and in the morning, they took him to the Chief Priest and the questions started. So many questions!   But Jesus was calm as he answered, turning their own words back on them, refusing to be trapped, yet never, ever denying his truth.  But even as I was so fiercely proud of him, I wanted to hush him; get him away from there.   When the Chief priest asked, “Are you the Son of God?” and my son said to him, “You say that I am,” I knew then, in that moment, that things had turned some awful corner. I knew it, even before I heard the Chief priest confirm it, even before they decided to take him to Pilate (so they could make him part of this hateful process, too, before we could take the next step on this awful journey).

Pilate had more questions! He asked my son if he was the ‘king of the Jews’ and he answered, “You say so,” which I thought was a good answer. Then Pilate said something that gave me a glimmer of hope, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” I breathed then for the first time in a long while. I looked around me at my neighbors and friends, expecting that they too would see that Jesus was innocent and that this ridiculous charade could be done with!  But they avoided my eyes. They were so vicious, so self-righteous, and kept insisting that Pilate take action against Jesus. I felt so confused, so desperate. How had this happened? These were the people I thought I knew, that knew me, knew us, but not now.  Now they were a mindless crowd, angry, out for blood.  After what seemed like forever, Pilate again said he could find nothing Jesus had done that deserved death, so he was going to have my son flogged and released. I breathed again then. While of course I did not want to see my son hurt any more, to see him in pain, if it would take a flogging to end this, I knew he could endure that. Then Mary and I could take him home, tend his wounds; we would have a meal, it would be ok, maybe. (I could see it all there for just a moment.)

But then the raging noise of the crowd broke through my thoughts. Pilate’s words had only upset them even more. Someone shouted out for another prisoner to be released, not my son, and the crowd roared its approval.  And when Pilate asked them what he should do with Jesus, the next words I heard were beyond those of my worst nightmare.  This crowd, these animals were screaming (she sobs) “Crucify him, crucify him!”

I tried to breathe. I tried to reason with those standing nearest to me, but I don’t think they even heard me. And in the end, they prevailed.   Pilate released the murderer, and my son was sentenced to the (ugliest, lowest) most horrible death imaginable-death by crucifixion

I remember the crowd that followed him up that hill; a lot of them just onlookers, gawkers, but some were there who really cared, like my friend, Simon, who helped him carry that hideous cross, and our women friends who began wailing and beating their breasts in love and mourning, and never let up the whole way there.

 

That walk, every step, seemed to go on forever, and yet we arrived in a heartbeat, at that place called The Skull, where it was to end. I watched it all, his pain, his agony, the brutality of that death. I held his eyes in mine and never looked away.  I have to admit, his heart was so much more forgiving than mine towards the soldiers who cast lots to divide up his clothing, to the ones who scoffed and taunted/mocked him. Even the criminals hanging alongside him could not just let him be! One of them kept calling out, “Are you not the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!” The other one finally shouted for him to “Shut up! They were getting what they deserved, but Jesus had done nothing wrong.” Then he said something I will never forget, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

My feelings were a torrent of love and grief for my son, anger and bewilderment. How has it come to this?  My child, my loved one, born of the Spirit, is dying on a hot dusty hill between two criminals. Despair flooded through me right then. It all seemed so pointless. I wanted to lash out with all the hate and pain in my heart. And then I heard him praying to his Abba Father, praying for the men who were killing him, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  My child, not just my beloved, but God’s too….in this awful death, he was still giving life.

Noon finally came on that endless, endless day and I continued to keep vigil at the foot of that torturous cross. It was very strange; it got dark suddenly, right in the middle of the day, the sun’s light dying as he was.  Then, finally, after hearing nothing for a long while I heard his voice, ringing  loud and clear one last time, “Father-God, into your hands I commend my spirit.” I looked up, desperate to look into his eyes one last time, fighting off my despair, to give him the last ounce of love within me. And then, he breathed his last.

I don’t remember a lot that happened after that. I know there was a centurion there, who saw it all; he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.”  And I remember Joseph went to Pilate and was given permission to collect the body.  I was so relieved that we could take him from there before the carrion came.  So Joseph, the women and I gently removed the broken body of the man I bore and raised, from the nails and wood of that horrible cross. We rubbed his skin with ointments, smoothed his hair, wrapped him in cloth with burial spices, placed him gently in the new tomb, and left him there where no one had been buried before.

Funny how little details remain, after all the blurring of time. I remember, as we finished the Sabbath was just beginning.  So, all the Sabbath day we rested, but there was no rest from my broken heart and my grief. Jesus, my son, was dead.

Encounter Love

In this season of Lent we have been focusing on the Lenten spiritual disciplines that support Christians in their faith formation, in recognizing God’s presence in one’s life by considering what sin is and how one can live a good and holy life. These spiritual disciplines are listed for us in the Ash Wednesday service: prayer, self-examination, repentance, fasting, and reading scripture. So far we’ve talked about prayer and some of the ways one can engage in prayerful activity from silent prayer, or reading, writing, or taking walks in nature, with the focus on making room for God to be present in one’s life. 

We’ve talked about self-examination as a spiritual discipline that was developed by St. Ignatius in his spiritual exercises. Self-examination is a daily exercise of reviewing one’s life and making note of what has gone well that day, what one has found challenging, working to make amends and heal broken relationships, finding gratitude in some aspect of the day, and looking forward to tomorrow.

Fasting has a long history in religious traditions. Sometimes one fasts from a particular food or beverage. Perhaps one fasts from an activity, like staying off of Facebook for the season of Lent. Some choose to fast from busyness. Busyness is a real phenomenon in our society. By staying really busy one does not have time to focus on building relationships or mending challenging relationships, one is simply too busy to do this deeper work, too busy to even make a little time for God and the formation of a spiritual life. Fasting from busyness provides an opportunity to enhance the quality of one’s spiritual life.

Today we are reflecting on the spiritual discipline of repentance. Repentance literally means turning around. As a Christian discipline it is the act of turn toward God or returning to God when one has strayed. It builds on the idea that sin is, essentially, broken relationship in all its forms – broken with God, broken with self, and broken with others. Relationships are broken, for example, when one fails to nurture them, pulls away or distances one’s self from another, chooses to not work through challenges, diminishes one’s self or another, shames or blames self or another person, among other ways that relationships might be broken. Repentance is the act of recognizing one’s broken state in light of God’s desire for all people to live in healthy, mature relationships, loving God, self, and others, and working to make amends.

The Gospel reading this morning challenges the listener; what is really going on in this story? Some people in the story think that the man’s blindness is the result of sin. In the ancient world  illness was thought to be the consequence of sin. Jesus refutes this idea, sin was not the cause of blindness. Notice that the blind man doesn’t ask Jesus for anything, and yet Jesus heals him. This is a story about what happens when one encounters the love of God. Encountering God’s love in human flesh causes a radical transformation, a change in one’s very being. Whether the act of encountering God’s love causes a literal physical healing or whether it causes a spiritual healing, the end result is similar, one is able to see in a new way. 

The Christian disciplines that Ash Wednesday invites us to observe intend to open one’s eyes and help one see in a new way. Lent provides us with a season to focus on how one is living one’s life and growing in faith. Next Sunday members of the Spirituality Commission will offer an adult forum, a sampling of some spiritual practices including: walking the labyrinth, centering prayer, and chanting. You’ll have the opportunity to learn about each of them and then try one of them. The Commission will repeat this forum several times over the spring so you will have the opportunity to try more than one, or to keep working on the one you like. 

 Like the man born blind who encounters Jesus and has his eyes opened, such is the potential for any one who takes on the practice of developing one’s faith. With opened eyes one can better see the broken and the whole places in one’s life and in the world. Practicing the spiritual disciplines of our Christian faith holds the potential that one might develop the capacity and the maturity to navigate one’s life in fuller, deeper, more complex and meaningful ways, one that informs and develops insight and wisdom, compassion and grace, and the ability to love a little more like God loves. But the most compelling potential of practicing the Christian disciplines is the idea that one might be healed of that which blinds one to one’s self and to others, and then, with new sight, one is sent out into the world with eyes wide open, to follow Jesus, feeding people in mind, body, and spirit.

a reflection for Lent 4A: John 9:1-41

Speaking one’s mind, telling one’s heart, becoming living water

I had a sixteen year hiatus from church between the years I was fifteen and thirty-one. In my late twenties, when I began to think about my spiritual life and contemplated going to church I was hesitant, fearful. Like most fears my fear was not rational. I was afraid that going to church would mean that I would lose myself. Growing up I was always the obedient daughter who excelled at life, but I never voiced my own opinions. I lost my self in what others wanted me to be and do. The church of my childhood reinforced that role for girls and daughters and I was a good little girl. But when my family left the church and stopped practicing Christianity, I had the opportunity to rethink everything and figure out who I was and what I wanted. So finding out as a 28 year old that I was being pulled back into church life was powerful and terrifying. But my desire to return was two-fold: I wanted a community where I could belong with a group of people who had similar life experiences and hopes and a place where I could ask questions about God and grow a more mature spirituality.

Figuring out how to be a Christian in the world today is challenging because there are many ways to be a Christian, across a wide swath of denominations, values and beliefs. In this season of Lent we have been pondering who we are as a faith community, how we can grow and deepen the spiritual lives of individuals, and how we can expand our identity as a community centered church that feeds people in mind, body, and spirit to make an impact on the world around us. We have been exploring this through our Sunday morning scripture readings, through the five disciplines that help us observe a Holy Lent as defined in the Book of Common Prayer, and through our newly forming Spirituality Commission. 

In each of the Sunday morning sermons I have taken one of the five Lenten disciplines: prayer, self-examination, reading scripture, repentance, and fasting, and connected it to the readings, its history in the Christian tradition, and how it might enhance one’s spirituality. So far I’ve talked about prayer and self examination. Today I’m reflecting on fasting. Fasting is an ancient practice found in many faith traditions. For Christians the point of fasting is to help one focus on God. Whenever one craves what one has given up one is to turn one’s attention to God through prayer and self-examination. When we think about fasting we usually think about not eating some food, like giving up chocolate for Lent. 

One can also fast from something one does. For example, I know a number of people who are fasting from Facebook for Lent. So instead of going on one’s computer and checking out Facebook one spends time in prayer instead. 

I said on Ash Wednesday that my Lenten discipline was going to be a fast from false busyness. I was going to slow down and be more present to my life. I thought of this because of several articles I’ve read recently which say that people have a tendency to stay really busy as a way of avoiding their lives – avoiding challenges in a marriage or parenting – really busy to avoid working on deepening relationships. Or being really busy because just the act of being busy makes one feel important and useful. I’m fasting from that kind of busyness and taking time to look at my life and my relationships. I’m taking time to focus on prayer and self-examination and God’s presence in my life. 

Which is exactly what happens in our scripture reading this morning. Both Jesus and this woman at the well stop long enough to become vulnerable with one another which leads them to take a good hard look at their lives and come to a deeper understanding of self. Who Jesus is and who this woman is.  

It seems that her life did not turn out as she had hoped. As a woman in that day and time she had no choice of who her husband was. And, if one husband died a brother or another male family member of that husband was obligated to take her as his wife. Sometimes no one would do that and the woman was abandoned, left to starve and die. 

This is a story about a woman who has stood up to the challenges in her life and survived. Her ability to enter into a debate with Jesus speaks to her strength. Unlike Nicodemus in the Gospel story from last week who came to Jesus in darkness,  she appears in the light of day. This points to her willingness to be out in the open, honest about who she is, willing to be vulnerable and yet courageous, feeling strength in her sense of self. 

 Brene Brown writes that embracing our vulnerability is risky and takes courage. “The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant ‘To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”’

And so this woman and Jesus have a courageous heart to heart conversation. By the way, this is the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the Bible. 

In the context of this profound conversation three things happen. 1. Jesus has travelled to Samaria, a land despised by the Hebrew people and with whom the Hebrews are in constant conflict. So, Jesus moves outside of his comfort zone, taking a risk, being vulnerable, and another example of how Jesus often went to the people instead of expecting them to come to him; 2. Jesus is the one who is thirsty, yearning for a cup of water, but he has no means of giving himself that water. This woman can give him a cup of water and she does. Jesus understands that his willingness to be vulnerable creates the opportunity for a deeper relationship to form with this woman, and with others 3. Jesus breaks with the male/female protocol and speaks with her and she with him. Each becomes vulnerable to the other and they end up seeing one another, and themselves, with more depth, understanding, and compassion, which changes each of them forever.  

Another important detail of this story is that the woman leaves her water jar at the well when she runs off to tell the townspeople about her encounter with Jesus. She can fast from that burden because she has a new purpose. Now she is the vessel of living water, she is the bearer of God’s love. Being heard and seen by Jesus she is able to authentically carry within her the fullness of her story, knowing that she is loved for being who she is. She becomes both vulnerable and strong, willing to share this love with the townspeople.

In a similar way, the purpose of our mission to feed people in mind, body, and spirit, is to deepen our relationships with other people through joining them at the well of life, listening deeply, and sharing expansively of our selves, becoming God’s living water to our neighbors far and near. 

A reflection on John 4:5-42 for Lent 3A