Saturday, March 31, 2012

What It Means To Be Human

Palm Sunday 2012- Year B § Philippians 2: 5-11/Mark 15:1-39
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland
The Heart Of Faith
We have entered the very heart of Christianity. We are meditating on the mystery of God. And the mystery only deepens, which is as it should be.

Having just read this portion of an ancient Christian hymn in Paul’s letter to the Philippians and about to read Mark’s account of the passion, we pause for a moment to consider just what lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

It is at once overpowering to the extent that when Jesus breathes his last, the curtain, which is meant to conceal the Holy of Holies in the Temple over half a mile away, is torn apart from top to bottom. A curtain meant to conceal and contain the presence of God opens the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all. Torn apart like the heavens in chapter 1 at Jesus' baptism when a voice declares, "This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased!" The voice returns at the moment of Transfiguration, "This is my Son. Listen to him!" But this time there is no voice beyond that uttered on the cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me." And then comes the voice of a Roman Centurion whose task is to oversee the state ordered execution. "Truly this man was the Son of God."

The ultimate reality about God is revealed in this final moment. What is revealed is both shattering and strengthening. For what is revealed is the human face of God. And the human face of God is nothing less than to assert that Jesus is God

It is shattering because it destroys all we have been taught to believe about God, all that we wish God to be: Almighty, all powerful, sitting on a heavenly throne, in charge of all that is, seen and unseen. Here Saint Mark invites us to see God in this despised, rejected, suffering figure. Like the disciples and no doubt many present at Calvary, we wish to turn our eyes away as if this is all some sort of bad dream. To do so would be to miss the whole meaning of incarnation and passion which is that God comes among us in weakness and humility to stand with us in the midst of the created order.

Such humility does not get portrayed in the literature of any time or place more dramatically than the picture of God willingly emptying of God’s self, limiting oneself, as the letter to the Philippians has it:
“…Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”

The key word at the heart of the mystery of God, at the heart of The Word made flesh, is “emptied.” In the New Testament Greek the word is kenosis: to empty oneself, to pour out oneself, to give one’s self in entirety on behalf of others.

In the story we are about to rehearse, our God is the God of kenosis. At the heart of God’s self-emptying humility is this: God willingly is wounded.

The mind of God, the mind of Christ is self-emptying. God willingly limits God’s power in order to become engaged in life on earth. And more: God is willing to limit God’s power to undergo the ultimate in powerlessness so that the power and the glory of God can enter the world. To effect this, Jesus gives up security, status, dominance and reputation, and power.

As our Palm Sunday begins, we read of his so-called “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. People spread garments and branches of palm along his way. They are jubilantly shouting, even singing, Hosanna, Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes, who comes in the name of the Lord! Jesus! Jesus! Blessed is he who comes! For years we have dressed it up to look truly exciting when in reality it was no doubt a small crowd acting out a rather pathetic demonstration of Love for the God who is Love. It is a kind of political morality play - not a welcome kind of scene for those Romans in charge of keeping the Passover Peace.

Are we so familiar with this story, so certain in our beliefs about God in Christ that we fail to see the isolation and seeming helplessness of Jesus that we forget that the mockery he suffers is ultimately the human mockery of God?

Of course he could no doubt get himself off the cross as many of his adversaries mockingly urge him to do. But that would run counter to his announced mission. It would run counter to all he has said and done up to this point, predicting three times that this would be the end of it. As religious leaders and Roman soldiers mock him as a king little do they understand that they unwittingly proclaim his truth. It is inconceivable to them that God as King of the Universe would allow this moment of crucifixion to be his enthronement. But, he does.

The great hymn of this in Philippians describes God’s unwillingness to be an arrogant God that humans often mistakenly think they require and even more often seek to reflect.

Have we not seen? Have we not heard? Do we not get it? Simon of Cyrene, father of Rufus and Alexander replaces that first Simon, now called Peter. Peter who has more than disappeared. He has denied having anything to do with Jesus. This new Simon, an African at that, appears to be a point of entry for all future disciples. The New Simon picks up the cross and carries it just as Jesus says we must. Simon is you. Simon is me.

Then comes the darkness. The threat of divine response and judgment comes upon the whole earth for three long hours. Can we recall that time before time itself, when out of the chaos of darkness this God on the cross summoned light and life and order and creatures, making us male and female, imago Dei, in the image of God? Does the darkness at noon portend a slipping backwards? Does the rejection of God's Beloved Son signal creation in reverse? Or, are we at the dawn and painful birth of a new creation?

Then, after three hours of darkness, the first utterance since his curt reply to Pilate, "You have said so," God speaks for the first time: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The Word is unwilling to come down even now. Rejected by his people, abandoned by his friends and disciples, he now experiences the abandonment of God, the sense of divine absence that accompanies all human suffering. The darkness without is matched by a darkness within as one commentator puts it. He is still calling on God, but there shall be no answer from God until he has shared to the full what is the lot of all human beings in death.

But the response that comes is not expected. Nor does it come from any expected place or person. First, the curtain in the Temple is rent, torn apart from top to bottom. This corresponds to the rending of the heavens at his Baptism. In both cases, at the beginning and end of Mark's story, it signals a divine response to the obedient association of Jesus with sinful humankind - first with those who respond to John's call to repentance in the River Jordan, and now hanging between two criminals in fulfillment of the "deeper baptism" about which he spoke to his disciples.

The first rending is accompanied by the divine voice proclaiming, "This is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased," an assurance repeated for three of his disciples at his Transfiguration. At this final rending there is no such voice. The startling moment is when the confirmation that this is the Son of God comes not from God, but from a Gentile Centurion - "the stained human lips of the one who has supervised the execution!" [Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom - A Theological Reading of Mark's Gospel, Liturgical Press, Collegeville:2008]

The first rending of the heavens signaled the breakdown of the barrier between the divine and human world. This second rending of the Temple curtain signals the break out of the divine saving presence from the Jerusalem Temple to the world at large! If the Centurion can be the recipient of God's saving embrace, there is hope for us all!

If God can be present in such a way at Golgotha, a place so totally under the control of the demonic powers of Empire for which the world continues to lust, then there can be no corner of the globe so evil as to be immune to outreach of divine saving grace. The world at the foot of the cross may be immersed in a deathly darkness, but in his final loud cry from the cross, the light, that first light that starts creation, is already breaking forth the dawn of a new creation. If the supervisor of the Christ's execution and who no doubt participated in the mockery of God can see the light, there is no captivity to evil so great that cannot be brought to conversion and faith.

Mark brings us face to face with the mystery of God before which we have nothing to say. All of our theologizing, all of our attempts to put God into words dissolve at the foot of the cross. Where we tend to go wrong time after time is to bring our ideas of God with us from wherever we get them and try to fit Christ into those ideas. If we are to take our Lord's Passion at all seriously, as we must, we must be willing to let our understandings of God be corrected, revolutionized, changed, so that we too may be changed - changed into the likeness of God in Christ.

We are now invited to enter the mysteries of this story one more time. It is the story of what it means to be human. It is the story of what it means to be created in the image of God - imago Dei. It is the story of God, which in the end must be our only story.
[The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark …]

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Become Children of the Light

25 March 2012/Lent 5B – John 12:20-33 (34-36)
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills
Become Children of Light
In the fall of 1983, having been ordained a deacon just few months, I was going to have lunch with a local Presbyterian minister in Winnetka, The Reverend Robert Hudnut. I met him at his church, and he left me to look around the sanctuary while he had to take one last phone call before we could leave. I wandered around until I was standing in the pulpit looking out at the rows of pews that sat empty as the “congregation” before me. As I glanced down at the reading table in the pulpit, my eyes fell on a verse from this morning’s gospel carved into the wood for every preacher who would ever stand there to see: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

It was like a blow to the solar plexus. It caught my breath. It was a moment of revelation as direct from the God of the great “I Am” as could possibly be. It was a reminder, early in my ministry, as to why I had been ordained in the first place – that for all the “Greeks” who might sit in front of me every time I undertake the task of proclamation there is only one task: to present Jesus to all those who come to see him. To find ways to make Jesus visible, palpable, available, able to be comprehended, known, alive, and present in all that we do and all that we say as a congregation of his people.

“The Greeks” in today’s story are stand-ins for us – for all of us. We come week in and week out wishing to see Jesus. Note, that in John’s narrative that although their request passes through the chain of command (from Philip to Andrew to Jesus), we never learn if their wish is granted. That is, I believe, because John means for us to be “the Greeks”. And this twelfth chapter lays it out in sequence quite clearly for “those who have eyes to see, and those who have ears to hear.”

You see the choice is ours. Will we be those who love our lives and lose them? Or, will we dare to live among those who “hate their life in this world” who “will keep it for eternal life”? Will we dare to be those who follow Jesus, that where he is, we are also? Are we at all ready to become those, who like Jesus, have a “troubled heart”? He is actually quoting Psalm 6 verse 3, which in the Hebrew means something more like, “My soul is struck with terror!”

And why not? For as he says, his hour had come to be lifted up high upon a cross – a crude, yet effective, means of state sponsored execution meant to be a deterrent for any and all who would challenge the status quo. Is this what “some Greeks” really have made the journey to Jerusalem to hear and see?

To get the full thrust we need to review chapter 12. It begins with the after miracle dinner in Bethany where Martha is serving the table, her sister Mary is anointing Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume, Judas complains, all the while Jesus and the newly revived Lazarus enjoy a meal after a full day’s work. Outside the door those who are not willing to have the status quo rocked are plotting to kill Jesus AND Lazarus. The next scene is Palm Sunday, at which his adversaries, impressed with the crowd cheering Jesus on into the City of Peace, remark, “There is nothing to do about it, the entire world is coming to him.” Then our episode confirms that, yes indeed, the world has arrived in the guise of “some Greeks,” gentiles, outsiders, unclean, unfit and not entirely welcome for the Passover festival that is at hand. Had we read the whole scene, after Jesus announces his being lifted up, like Peter at Caesarea Philipi, the crowd asks, “But our understanding is that the Son of Man, that is the Messiah, the Christ, will last forever. How can this be?”

Like any good Rabbi Jesus does not answer their question but rather speaks about light. This is how John’s gospel begins – “What was coming into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (1:3b-4) Throughout the ages the translators have had a bit of a puzzle over that last bit, variously rendering it, “did not comprehend it,” “did not apprehend it,” “did not overcome it.”

The Greek word here can mean “to take to mind” (apprehend), or “to take under control” (overcome). That is, to be enlightened by it, or to put it out. Both meanings are true. The darkness neither is enlightened by it, nor does it put it out. The darkness in no sense received the light, and yet the light continues to shine undimmed. For Jesus, like the seed he discusses, may be dead and planted in the ground, but like the seed he sprouts anew to shine on another day – an eternal day at that! Jesus concludes it all with the challenge, “The light is with you a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light!” (John 12:35-36)

My guess is that the Greeks, if they were indeed present for all of this, got much more than they bargained for. To “see” Jesus is to be with Jesus. He says, “Where I am, there will my servant be also.” That is, the same darkness trying to take Jesus down will try to take us down as well.

The good news is that he has planted the seed of faith within us, and his light continues to shine. His seed of faith and his light makes it possible for us to be those people who promise that all that we do and all that we say will proclaim the good news of Jesus. Fortunately for us there are those who have gone before us who have reflected his light in all that they have said and done. Think of the disciples, of Laurence deacon of Rome, of Ghandi, Martin King, Mother Teresa - they have all withstood the darkness. They were not the light, but reflectors of the light because they themselves are turned toward the light. The light they reflect continues to shine, giving us examples, giving us hope, giving us power to become children of the Light.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus. Where I am, there will my servant be also. Are we there? Are you there? When people look at us do they see Jesus? And if not now, when? Amen.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Can You See The Cross?

11 March 2012/Lent 3B - Exodus 20:1-17/1 Corinthians 1:18-25/John 2:13-22
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter's at Ellicott Mills
Can You See The Cross?
We currently have seven candidates preparing for Confirmation and Reception. From the earliest days of the Church, Lent has been the time for such preparation. In confirmation and reception one renews and reaffirms the promises made in Baptism – The Baptismal Covenant. At the Easter Vigil we will all renew our Baptismal Covenant. In a sense it is our job description as Christians – it sets out in no uncertain terms who we are and whose we are – we are the Lord’s, we belong to God in Christ. Or, as we say in Rite One during Lent, “That he may dwell in us and we in him.”

As a sign of our Oneness and covenant with God in Christ, each of our candidates was asked last Sunday to write down the 38th verse from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It was suggested that when times are tough, or things seem uncertain, we ought to return to this verse, pray with it, and remember our covenant relationship with God in Christ.

These first three weeks of Lent our First Lessons have provided a history of covenant. Week One it was the covenant with Noah and “every living creature.” God had grown weary of our bad behavior and destroyed all but a boatload of people and creatures. As Noah builds an altar of stones at the end of the flood, God places a rainbow in the heavens as a sign that never again “shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Showing our God to be merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Next was the covenant with Abraham, the foundation of monotheistic religion for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God promises Abraham, if you will be my people, I will be your God. I will make you fruitful and multiply; I will give you a land; I will make you a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. To Sarah and Abraham is born a beloved son, Isaac, and the journey begins.
The descendants of Abraham, however, end up slaves in Egypt. God hears their cry. Moses leads the Passover/Exodus escape. On the other side of the sea, Miriam, Moses’ sister, breaks out the tambourines and leads the sisters in dancing and singing their freedom: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously! The horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea!”

Which brings us to today’s depiction of the covenant with Israel – beginning with the Ten Commandments. These Ten Commandments made Israel, “the fewest of all peoples,” God’s little demonstration community. They have become the foundation of all western civilization and give shape to what freedom really means! They are neatly given in two parts: Commandments 1-4 define our relationship with God – Commandments 5-10 define our relationships with one another. Love God and Love neighbor, says Jesus. We might note carefully that the first four take up the bulk of the text, with nearly a third of the whole text devoted to the importance of the Sabbath. It is ironic that we feel we are just too busy these days to take a whole day off – to value time more than our acquisition and consumption of things of space.

Our Baptismal Covenant, as we heard last week, re-shapes our relationships with God and neighbor in ways exampled by the life and actions of our Savior Jesus Christ - He who defined neighbor in the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Last Judgment. As the African hymn has it, “all our neighbors to us and you.” All. Not some, not many, not a few, but all people are our neighbors, and we are to seek and serve Christ in ALL persons.

My first baptism as a priest was a little girl named Eleanor. Her mother Frances was baptized as well that day. Eleanor was about 4 years old. When I asked her, "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?" She could answer for herself, "I will with God's help." "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice and peace for all people? Will you respect the dignity of every human being?" "I will with God's help." Then I sprinkled her with water, traced the sign of the cross on her forehead, marking her as Christ's own forever.

Afterwards, we were at her house having brunch. I was talking with someone when there was a tug on my pants leg. It was Eleanor. "Can you still see the cross on my forehead?" she asked. There was a powerful sense of anticipation on her face seeking an answer to what would be a great question for all of us to consider every day. Eleanor could internalize what had just happened to her in ways most of us completely miss. I looked into her eyes and replied, "Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead!" And off she skipped like the very happiest of all little girls everywhere! I thought for a moment what a great question that really was. Then I returned to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking with others about far less important things.

A week passed. I really had not thought about Eleanor's question at all. But fortunately for me the Lord was not finished with me yet! The next Sunday, as I was vesting, there was a tug on my alb. I turned to see that it was Eleanor again. "Can you still see the cross on my forehead?" she asked. It was at that moment that God broke me open. Just last Sunday we heard the scripture, "If you want to be a disciple of mine you must pick up your cross and follow me." I had always thought that meant the tough and difficult things in life – “He has had a great cross to bear,” we say. “She has had so many crosses to bear.” This usually means things like hardship, disease, loss, loneliness, alienation, bigotry and all those things that make life hard to bear.

It took a little girl to help me to see, this is the cross we are asked to carry – the cross traced with oil blessed by our bishop, sealing us and marking us as Christ’s own forever. A sign of promises made, promises meant to shape our lives together. People ought to see who we are and whose we are by all that we do and say; by the way we respect the dignity of every human being; by the ways in which we fellowship together; by the way we seek and serve Christ in one another, and in all others. Because Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, we like Miriam can dance and sing our freedom from sin and death! Because nothing can separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! Lent is a time to remember all of this and act accordingly- we are God’s little demonstration community! Lent is a time to ask ourselves, Can you see the cross on my forehead? Amen.

Eleanor’s Song

Can you see the cross
On my forehead
Sayin’ Jesus lives inside of me
Can you see the cross
On my forehead
There for all the world to see

To see how we are meant to love
To see how we are meant to live
To see how we are meant to share
To see how we are meant to give


That he is Lord of all that is
That he is mine and I am His
As I strive for justice, peace and dignity
I share in his every ministry


That I am God’s beloved child
That our God is well pleased with me
That we can laugh and dance and sing
Nothing can separate the love of Christ from me


Copyright Kirk Kubicek/Sounds Divine