Saturday, April 10, 2010

Easter 2C sermon

I have to admit that I am quite squeamish about today's gospel reading. There are numerous artisic renderings of the scene when Thomas encounters the Risen Christ, and I really have trouble spending much time with those also. There's the famous Caravaggio painting, where Thomas sticks his finger in the slit that is the wound in Jesus's side while the other disciples gather around looking, and there's even a banner that hangs on the belltower of St. Andrew's Cathedral that shows Thomas coming toward Jesus's wounded side with an outstretched finger (which one of my friends has dubbed the "Tickle me Jesus banner." )

So I thought about why this image makes me uncomfortable, and I think it is the same type of squeamishness that makes my stomach do a flip-flop when my daughter tells me how she ripped her loose tooth out at the lunch table in the cafeteria earlier this week. I don't really want to think about anybody probing anybody else's wounds, no matter how worthy the cause.

But I also think about my discomfort in the face of what this story has to offer us which is this. The Risen Christ is recognized by his disciples because of his wounds. The resurrection has not miraculously removed his hurt, his betrayal, his suffering. Even though he has defeated death, he still maintains its scars. When the Resurrected Christ first visits the disciples all together, he offers them his wounds as evidence of who he is.

Here's another way of saying it, that our bishop said at the ECW closing eucharist today. "When we give oursleves to God, we don't just offer our best; we offer God our all, our everything."

That includes our joy and our gifts and our hope and our new life, and it also includes our wounds and our scars, our suffering and our sorrow.

And notice what happens when Jesus has offered Thomas his wounds? Thomas replies with not only recongnition but with a statement of faith: "My Lord and my God!" It is the climax in the Gospel of John, and Thomas becomes the apostle who articulates the new faith, the good news after the resurrection.

But what happens to us when we offer God our all? Ernest Hemmingway has a line in one of his books that says, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." As Christians, we believe that it is only through giving our all to God, offering to God all ourselves even our wounds as Christ did (to God and to his disciples), then God takes us and makes us a new creation, resurrected and remade and strong at our broken places.

In that way we become both believers and witnesses to the resurrection in our own lives and those who walk this way with us, and we become evangelists of the good news of God's salvation in our words and even more importantly in our very being.

ECW Spring Conference

Today was my last day as chaplain to the Diocesan ECW (Episcopal Church Women). Giving it up was a decision that I wrestled with as I weighed the distance to travel, my responsibilites in my new parish and other diocesan commitments, the needs of my young family, and the many gifts that I receive from that work and that community.

This weekend, I got to spend time with the officers, many of whom have been in leadership since I began five years ago; I also got to spend time with some members of my former flock in McComb/Magnolia. As was to be expected, I stayed up way too late with them (and may have had a little more to drink that I otherwise would have), and we swapped stories of our lives and the people that we know and love together. I asked them for advice about my children, particularly my son's newfound skill of always putting his hand down his diaper, and I received multiple stories to illustrate that there's really nothing I can do about that and finally the sage words: "Oh, honey. He's a boy! They all do that!"

We also shared many stories of the fabulous Jeanne Barkley, about how she once left her bra on the table in a restaurant as a tip and about the outrageous things she would say and her amazing zest for life. We had some quiet moments that were our unspoken acknowledgement of how much we miss her presence in this life, and then we'd laugh some more about all the crazy stuff we did with her.

In addition to the community of ECW, my other favorite part of my time with them has been this. Never in my life in the church have I been anwhere else where we can pray the words of the Eucharist in all female voices. The first time I experienced, I was almost brought to tears, it was so powerful to be among a company of all women and being the church to and with one another.

I also like that on the occasions that we would have male speakers come in for our retreats, they seemed to soften in this company of all women, in ways that men in mixed company just don't act.

Tonight, I give thanks for my time with all of them, how they have helped shape me as a priest, as a person, and as a woman.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Day of Resurrection 2010

The Day of Resurrection Year C
April 4, 2010
In her book Practicing Resurrection, Nora Gallagher recalls a conversation with her friend Harriet who told her about sitting in church at the National Cathedral in Washington. During the course of a boring sermon the priest asked the congregation in unctuous tones, "Now what do you really want for Christmas this year?" "I nearly rose from my pew," she told Nora. "I was gathering myself up until I looked over at my sister who was giving me That Look, and I sat back down, but what I wanted to do was stand up and call out, 'I would really like to believe in the resurrection.'"
For many of us, this is also the deepest desire of our hearts, why we are here this morning. We want to believe in the resurrection.
Our gospel reading for today provides us with some help in this. I love all the resurrection stories, but this one may very well be my favorite because it truly captures the widest array of human emotions. First, there’s Mary Magdalene, arriving alone in the dark to discover the open grave. So she runs to the disciples, to Peter and the other, the one whom Jesus loved, and she reports to them what she thinks she has found. Then Peter and the other take off running toward the tomb to see for themselves, and this seems to dissolve into a contest, with the beloved disciple outrunning Peter and arriving first, but then Peter acting with his characteristic boldness and being the first person to actually enter the tomb. They look around and see nothing, except the empty grave clothes, with the head covering rolled neatly by itself (obviously the Risen Christ’s mother taught him well).
With this evidence, the gospeller tells us, the beloved disciple believed, but they did not yet understand. Then, the two men just leave and go home (“Nothin’ to see here, folks; go about your business…. “) leaving Mary Magdalene alone in her grief, weeping outside the tomb. As she happens to peer into the darkness of the tomb with the sun coming up behind her, she sees two angels, bookmarking the empty space, and they ask her why she is weeping. She seems unfazed by the appearance of the messengers of God and replies with a hopelessness and a despair that echo across the centuries, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
After she says this, she turns away from the angels to see the Risen Christ, (who had laid aside his grave clothes and picked up some more clothes somewhere else, perhaps borrowing some from the gardener) and she does not recognize him. When he questions her, she pleads to know where Jesus’s body has been put, and finally, Jesus calls her name and she recognizes him. She goes to embrace him and he will not let her saying that the story is not yet complete and there is work still to be done, and he instructs her to go tell the disciples what she has witnessed. So she goes back to them and announces with joy, “I have seen the Lord,” and she tells them what Jesus has said to her.
This is what strikes me most about this story. There’s a lot of racing around, people trying to figure out what’s going on and what they can do, but in the face of the empty tomb, there is nothing for them to do. Peter goes home; Mary Magdalene stands outside, lost and grieving, sick at heart; and the beloved disciple believes even though he does not yet understand.
In the depths of her grief and desolation, Mary hears the Risen Christ call her name and in that one word that symbolizes their care for each other, the trust and the hope that she had placed in him that she believed was dead with him in the tomb, in hearing him speak her name, her hope is restored, and he returns her joy to her. Her belief in the resurrection is a pure gift of his presence and his call to her. Then he sends her out to tell the story, to spread the good news, for the story is still unfinished; he sends her out to spread the good news and to resurrect hope in the hearts of the disciples and people everywhere, to proclaim that death no longer has the ultimate power over us, that betrayal and murder, despair and desolation will not triumph in the face of the power of God’s love. The beloved disciple walks away from the empty tomb with no more evidence than the absence of a body and the empty grave clothes. And yet, he chooses to believe in the resurrection, even though he does not yet understand. Peter does even have that. He walks away from the empty tomb, and until he actually encounters the risen Christ later in the story, what he has is the belief of others, the faith of the others, the stories of the others. He must trust the choice of the beloved disciple to believe; he must trust the story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Christ and her joy at hearing him call her name. Each one of these three disciples has a very different way that they believe in the resurrection.
This is why I believe in the resurrection. Because I choose to believe, to stake my life on it, even though I do not understand; Because I have heard the Risen Lord call my name through the depths of my sorrow and despair, and in his call, I have found my hope returned to me, and because I have witnessed this in the lives of others, again and again and again. Because the stories of our scriptures tell of an almost unbelievable transformation in the lives of Jesus’s disciples after his resurrection; those who were so afraid and misunderstanding become enlivened and emboldened, and they work ceaselessly to spread the good news throughout all the world; and because I have seen others’ whose lives have been radically transformed in a similar fashion: those who were once enslaved by the powers of darkness through greed, drug addiction, self-centeredness, and corruption have been called by name, forgiven and sent out, transformed, to do the work of the Risen Christ in this world.
And at the very heart of what we call belief is really hope: hope that Jesus really is who we’ve been saying he is over the course of all these years, hope that he has in fact proven once and for all that God’s love is stronger than sin and death, that he has, in fact, destroyed death, and that we will be included in that salvation.
I have stood beside the bed of those who were dying, and I watched as they gently entrusted their lives to hope in the resurrection; I have sat across my office from those who are wrestling with painful decisions, and I watched them discover peace through hope in the resurrection. I have been in the depths of despair, and through an unspoken prayer have been regifted with a small light of hope in heart that is hope in the resurrection.
Sometimes it is a gift of the Risen Lord, and sometimes it is a choice, the sheer force of our will, this belief, this hope. Sometimes we must rely on the choice and gift, the belief and the hope of others with whom we walk those whom we trust and love, and that is enough to carry us through. But above all, that is why we are here today. To walk this way with one another, to sing and rejoice together, to believe for and with one another, to jingle our bells, to sing, and to say again and again, in hope: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Great Vigil of Easter 2010

The Rev. Melanie Dickson Lemburg
The Great Vigil of Easter
April 3, 2010

A letter to Alison Louise Yonko on the occasion of her baptism.
Dear Alison,
This is a holy night. “This is the night when [God] brought our fathers, the children of Israel, out of bondage in Egypt and led them through the Red Sea on dry land.” “This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin and are restored to grace and holiness of life.” “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and rose victorious from the grave.” This is the night when you are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. This is the night when you have become an important part of the body of Christ. This is the night when we all remember who we are, from whence comes our salvation, how we are called to live our lives, and why it all matters.

This holy night is the beginning of a journey for you that you will follow into and through your own death. You will journey through valleys and over mountains; your way will be both smooth and rocky. Some times you will dance and rejoice along the way and at other times you will feel so weary and heartbroken that you don’t know how you can go on. During all of those different parts of your journey, my prayer for you is “may you remember.”

May you remember, during those times in your life, when darkness weighs upon you like a tomb, that the light of Christ shines within you and will light your path into the dark.

May you remember, no matter what happens, that you belong to God; that your baptism is a sign that God loves you, that God cherishes you, and that you are not alone.

May you remember the promises that your parents and godparents have made to you—that we will walk with you as your sisters and brothers as you seek to follow Jesus.

May you remember, every time that you lift your shining face to God with your hands outstretched to receive the bread and the wine, that you are being fed the body and blood of Jesus who loves you, so you may go out into the world to share that love with others.

May you remember that belief is not so much about what you think but belief is about choosing a path and following it; belief is about how you live your life.

May you remember that Christ, our hope, is arisen, and he goes before you on your journey so that you may follow where he leads.

May you remember that you have been buried with Christ in his death and that you share in his resurrection, so you have absolutely nothing to lose. May you live and love with joy and abandon.

May you remember the truth of the Mystery of this holy night: “that God’s love is stronger than death.”

Your sister in Christ, Melanie+

Friday, April 2, 2010

Good Friday sermon 2010

Good Friday
April 2, 2010
When I was 3 or 4 years old, I had a conversation with my mother on Good Friday that may be one of my earliest memories. She was trying to explain to me the significance of the day, that it was called Good Friday, and it was the day that we remembered the death of Jesus on the cross. When I heard that the Jesus who I sang about, the Jesus who loves me and who is the lover of all little children, red, and yellow, black, and white, they are precious in his sight, when I heard that Jesus had been killed, I started weeping silently, great, big, tears spilling down my face. When my mother turned from what she was doing and saw how I was grieving, she hugged me and got down to my level, and she tried to explain that yes, it is very sad that Jesus died, but that we call it Good Friday because we believe that the story ends happily with his resurrection from the dead and our inclusion in all of that saving work.
I’m not sure that I got it then, and I’m not sure that I get it even now. I was still sad, and I think it’s appropriate to carry some of that sadness, some of that grief with us into our observance of Good Friday this day.
In our Good Friday observance, we focus on the death of Jesus, how he dies in pain, abandoned by friends, mocked by his enemies, ignored by others, and God does not intervene to fix any of it. We keep vigil with him as he dies; we watch him suffer; we acknowledge how our own actions of “turning to our own way” cause his suffering and the suffering of others in this world. We hear how he affirms the depths of our human existence with his recitation of Psalm 22 from the cross, how his very lips affirm the forsakenness of the moment of his crucifixion and also his complete trust in God, and we recognize in that some of our own human experience, the comparable rhythm of divine absence and presence.
But we also must be mindful of the instruction from the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, who writes, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Even as the cross is a symbol of suffering, it is also, for us a symbol of hope. The Anglican priest Kenneth Leech writes, “The uniquely Christian claim is that the cross is the focal point for the knowledge of God. Through the cross, we are integrated into the life of God. We can say that the cross is the self-definition of God, the heart of the mystery of God’s being. It is the center of all faith and all theology.” God revealed in the cross, in the death of Jesus, that God was willing to do whatever it would take to reunite us with God. God would not let our destructive behavior, our self-serving ways, serve as an impediment in our relationship with God. The Eastern Orthodox have a simple phrase that gets to the heart of this when they address Christ and say, “you left nothing undone until you had brought us to heaven.”
Anything that we could ever experience, any desolation, any forsakenness, any sorrow, any hell, Christ has already experienced. He has been through it, in his death, and he has come out the other side in his resurrection, and he willingly brings us with him. Upon this rests our hope.
No matter how bereft we may feel, no matter how forsaken or abandoned, no matter how we may despair, we look to the cross as a tangible reminder that Christ has been there, that he is still there with us, and we cling to that promise of new life and resurrection in faith and in hope.
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”

Maundy Thursday sermon

Rev. Melanie Dickson Lemburg
Maundy Thursday
April 1, 2010

I wonder, What would you have felt like if I had stopped you at the door on your way into the church tonight and asked each one of you to remove your shoes and go through this church service barefooted? What emotions would you have experienced at my strange request? Would you have felt freedom, as if you had the abandon of childhood or as if you had come home? Or would you feel more negative emotions: Embarrassment? Discomfort? Even fear?
In tonight’s gospel, Jesus kneels before the bare feet of his disciples and he washes them, much as we will do for one another in a matter of moments. And the disciples are horrified. Peter is emphatic, “Lord, you will never wash my feet.” And as Jesus kneels before Peter, he looks up into Peter’s eyes and says, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Peter, Jesus says, with all compassion. I understand that this makes you feel uncomfortable, but it is because you do not understand. You must let me wash you, just as you must let me love you. You cannot be fully who God has created you to be, until you accept my love for you. You must let me love you.
So we carry out Jesus’ commandment tonight, his mandatum, to love one another as he has loved us. Tonight we come to be washed and we come to be fed. In both actions, we are the recipients of Jesus’s love, the recipients of the outpouring of his very self. But even as we prepare ourselves to receive that love, we may be frightened, embarrassed, uneasy.
Many of us don’t feel particularly comfortable being vulnerable, and that’s what we are-- sitting up in this chair with our bare feet, being open to others in a way that is radically different from what we are used to. Even kneeling at the altar, we are vulnerable. We come forward with our hands open and outstretched in supplication, asking, hoping, waiting to receive the tangible outpouring of Jesus Christ’s love for us. It is not something that we can win for ourselves. It’s not something we can achieve or accomplish. It is God’s free gift to each of us.
But I think it’s appropriate for us to be a little bit frightened, to be a little bit uncertain, to be a little bit humbled in the face of such a gift, such a love…just as long as we don’t let these feelings get in the way of our primary duty tonight—that is letting Jesus love us, each and every one of us. Your primary responsibility tonight is to let Jesus love you.
Even as Jesus calls us to receive his love, he is also calling us to be who we are. He calls us to sit before him and each other unashamedly with our naked feet. He calls us to be ourselves; he calls us to be real, to be authentic. Roman Catholic nun and writer Joan Chittister describes this as “walking through life with a barefooted soul.”
We will be given this chance, literally. In a moment, I will call you forward to wash and, more importantly, to be washed. I always find it much harder to let my feet be washed than to be the one to do the washing, but that is what tonight is all about. Tonight, we are called to follow Jesus’ example, to do as he has done and to love others. But before we can carry this out, on this night, in this moment, we are called to receive; we are called to receive Jesus’ love for us in the washing and in the Eucharist, and we are called to receive our neighbor’s love for us also. So we will take turns washing each other. First you will sit and be washed and then you will wash the next person’s feet. And as we wash each other, we model Christ’s love for each and every one of us.
After we are finished and you have returned to your seat, I offer you an invitation. Leave your shoes off for the rest of the service. See what it feels like to walk on these beautiful, beaten-up bricks, and come barefoot to the altar to receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Come with bare feet and a barefooted soul, knowing that Jesus accepts you just are you are, and receive his gift of love.