Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Jesus wept.

Listen here.

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 29, 2020

One of my favorite books is Gospel.  No, not the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John but a big, rambling 800-page novel by Wilton Barnhardt.  Gospel is the story of an eccentric hardboiled Chicago Irish professor and his nubile graduate student assistant, as they travel the world: Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, in search of a fifth gospel, a lost gospel.

This lost gospel turns out to be the testament of Matthias. Matthias is the thirteenth apostle. Remember, the one who was chosen by a roll of the dice in the book of Acts.  Judas’ replacement. Matthias, you see, was not in that Upper Room with the other disciples when Jesus mysteriously appeared. Having not been on the resurrection scene, Matthias can barely wrap his head around what resurrection means.  He struggles daily with unbelief.  Matthias’ fictional gospel recounts his quest, the story of an old man, who seeks to find his fellow remaining disciples in their autumn years. 

Do they still believe? Do they still have faith in that wild, incredulous story? Do they still believe, after all this time, that life can come out of death?  

There are rumors, Matthias in the novel tells us. Persistent rumors that the body of their Lord had actually been stolen, and secreted away. The rumors haunt Matthias. He urgently wants to dispel them. So, he searches out the shady underground that traffics in relics.

Matthias pays the underworld guide a bag of silver, to be taken to what is claimed to be — Jesus’ hideaway tomb. The guide “brought me to the door of the chamber,” he says, “where the relic of Our Lord was supposed to be hidden.  But here, brothers and sisters, you shall find it strange, but I refused to go forward. The guide beckoned me to follow but I stood frozen in my path!  He approached what looked like the remains of a body and began to unwrap the dirty linen, but I demanded that he stop, and I fled up the stairs. I ran from the very truth I sought.”

Resurrection faith is hard to hold onto. It is hard to maintain. Like this doubting Matthias, can we really believe that life can come from death? That grief might be redeemed by joy?

Graveyards are haunting and holy places. They speak of sacrifice and loss, grief and sorrow. But also, gratitude, a rush of love for those who have gone before us.  A place of peace and rest. Memorials to hope.

We are in a grieving time, a very anxious time.   Social distancing is paramount. It is what we are called to do. It is our critical ministry of love to carry out for one another. Our ministry of love for our community and country. Our ministry of love to do what we can to contain the spread of the corona virus.

But Covid-19, at least for the time being, has been the death of our daily routines. We grieve the loss of being in church together, the loss of coffee with a friend, the loss of play dates, the loss of after school sports and sitting in the bleachers at baseball games. We grieve the loss of going to the office, happy hour after work with friends. We grieve the loss of touch and human warmth.

We grieve the cost to those most vulnerable: to those with no sick leave or insurance, to the Uber and Lyft drivers, to service and gig-workers, to the hungry and the homeless, to the immigrants, refugees, and the undocumented, to families with no childcare, and children without classrooms and without school meals.

We grieve the loss of lives already taken by the virus and for those who have lost a loved one when they cannot be by their side.

How do we stay connected to one another and to those who need us, in this upside down Covid-19 world?

Well, Jesus has something to tell us today.

Let’s listen to the story of Jesus today in the Gospel of John. The story of   Jesus creating life out of death: the raising of Lazarus. Now, I have always had trouble with the Jesus, John portrays in this story.  Jesus comes across a little aloof, a little cold and indifferent to the death of his friend. Waiting to employ his miraculous powers for maximum affect. To instill rock solid belief in doubting believers. It’s very likely the people of John’s community, late in the first century, two generations after Jesus, had trouble holding on to their resurrection faith. So, the evangelist John, and John alone, tells the story of the raising of Lazarus.

Now certain scholars believe that John simply made this story up. Made it up out of bits and pieces from the other gospels.

This cocky and confident Christ sounds more like the preaching of John than the Jesus I know and love. But read it again. The story’s core rings true. It is in the end, a story of a grieving friend whose faith was put to the test.

Hearing of his friend’s illness, a very busy Jesus, over scheduled, overburdened and preoccupied with his mission, is not overly concerned for Lazarus. Jesus believes he has the benefit of time but Jesus was wrong.

Dumbfounded and unbelieving, Jesus returns to Bethany. As he approaches the grave of his friend, he breaks down and cries. 

 Jesus wept.

Overwhelmed by grief, I imagine Jesus berating himself with Mary and Martha’s questions: O my God, Lazarus, why was I not here to comfort you?  Why did I not come sooner?  Maybe I could have made a miracle.  Maybe I could have healed you.

In tears, Jesus cries out. Father!  Hear me! Please, bring Lazarus back. Come out Lazarus. Come out.

And this is probably heresy, but I believe that when Lazarus stumbled out of the tomb that day, that no one was more surprised than Jesus. Just in time, before Jesus heads into Jerusalem, just before he climbs the hill at Calvary, Jesus felt and saw, that yes, God can and God does and God will call life out of death. God will roll away that stone.

And so, for us, just as well, we get a glimpse of Easter before Easter. A foretaste of hope, of life restored. Resurrected, yes but not the same. Some the same, but also different.

So, the things we grieve the loss of, the loss of so many daily connections, inspires us to find new creative ways to stay connected as the Body of Christ. And we are just beginning to figure this out as a community of faith.

What does pastoral care look like? Keeping it as personal as possible with phone calls, handwritten notes in the mail, and FaceTime. A “zoom” visit into your living room. “Zoom” visits to a bedside or a hospital room. Even from a distance, we can “lay on hands” of love. Don’t hesitate to reach out to Chuck or I, the contact info is in your “electronic bulletin.”

And if we weren’t before, we are all pastors now, pastors to one another. Your voice, your face on the other end of the line, your handwritten note can bring untold comfort and brighten someone’s day.

And spiritual formation? Well, we are all wrestling with angels now. In times like these, we look to our faith for strength and solace. So for families with children, “EEC Sunday school at Home” materials are included here, in your electronic bulletin. And for grownups? Consider “zooming” bible study, a book group, a “virtual Popcorn Theology. Maybe “zooming” God and Donuts gatherings, too? And if you would like to have a one-on-one conversation we can do “Rabbi by Appointment” via Zoom. Email me and I would be more than happy to set that up.

What does Outreach look like? This is both the most challenging and incredibly important. The financial repercussions of Covid-19 are enormous. Untold numbers of Americans (possibly even yourself) have been furloughed and have lost their jobs. On this front, the Outreach Ministry Team is coordinating with its many direct service ministries: bag lunches; shelter meals, etc. And online you can donate to Emmanuel’s Leaves of Love fundraiser for Refugee Ministry. You can donate to ALIVE, Carpenter’s Shelter, Meals on Wheels, and other organizations serving “the least of these” in our communities.

We are building this plane together as we go.

And as for worship, here we are together online, your “Associate for Liturgy & Hilarity,” is ever so grateful and happy to report.

God bless technology and the internet. God bless Google and Youtube. God bless Constant Contact and WordPress. God bless Voice Memos and Zoom. God bless smart phones, tablets, laptops and desktops, too. On Sundays (or anytime) with “Emmanuel at Home” on our screens, we can still gather, hear the sounds of sacred music, read the scriptures, listen to a homily like this one, keep up our pledge, so that the church can keep being the church in this very needful time. Engage your kids with “Emmanuel Sunday School at Home.”  And via Zoom, we will gather at 11:30 AM, in the ‘virtual parish hall for ‘“Emmanuel at Home Coffee Hour.”  

Chuck and I will both be there. I hope you will be there too. 

And stay tuned, Holy Week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, new creative versions of all, will also be coming to your inbox. Even in this upside down time, we will still be singing and shouting, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”

Stay well, Emmanuel, stay well & keep the faith.

NOTE: If you receive this via email have trouble listening to homily, click on the “URL:https:….” at the bottom of email to go the U&U website.


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The Liturgist’s Dilemma: Translating Tragedy into Prayer

When asked what I do for a living, I no longer answer “clergy” or “Episcopal priest.” Frankly, lots of people just don’t know what to do with that. Stereotypes abound: that clergy only work on Sunday, that we are not allowed to drink, that you should not curse around us.

And because of stereotypes in the media, many assume Christian equates to fundamentalist or evangelical or conservative. When in all honesty, I am none of these things.

So, instead I tell people I am in the hope business. I am in the love your neighbor and reconciliation business.

 I was ordained to preach and to teach and to be a pastor.   And I make my living with words: healing, honest, provocative, faithful, hopeful, joyful, sorrowful, humorous, beautiful, life giving and insightful words. A professional wordsmith, I am both a writer and a storyteller.

I am also blessed to be the parish liturgist at Emmanuel on High. What the heck is a liturgist?  Well, it is something I never thought I would grow up to be, I am a big picture person, you see. And meaningful liturgy is found in the details and details have never been my best thing.  But now sweating the details of liturgy is my labor of love.

In an Excel spreadsheet, I map out Sunday services across the seasons, six months at a time. At Emmanuel, we cycle though the depth and breadth of every option the Book of Common Prayer has to offer.

And where the BCP allows the liturgy to flex, we flex.  Because meaningful liturgy is faithful not just to God.  Faithful liturgy speaks to the people in the pews. Faithful liturgy weaves together both the past week’s sorrow and joy into the Sunday prayers.

I am a translator of sorts. I have the sad but necessary job of translating tragedy into prayer. It is a ministry that means the world to me – quite literally.

And tragically, of course, there is no shortage of tragedy. Every week I scribble in colored pen the changes to the Prayers of People — keeping our intercessions in sync with the world as best I can – before the bulletin hits the presses on Friday.

Prayers after hurricanes: Harvey, Maria, Florence and Michael.

Prayers after mass shootings: Pulse nightclub, Parkland Stoneman Douglas High School, Las Vegas Route 91 Music Festival.

Prayers after Charlottesville.

Prayers after the Simpson Field tragedy, right down the street, in the very place where our very own children play baseball.

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And then, there was this week:

Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate. Out of hate, 14 pipe bombs were mailed to former presidents, Democratic leaders who have served our nation and a news organization. Out of hate, a gunman violated a house of worship on the Jewish sabbath, killing many and injuring more. We have no words but words of grief, sorrow, and contrition. Word of Life, grant us both the inspiration and the courage to speak words of justice, hope, healing and peace. The light of God’s Word shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

 My Alexandria, Virginia church basks in the backyard of the Nation’s Capital, Washington, D.C. Mindful of the political views of the people in our pews, I work very hard crafting prayers to hew close to the truth but also not to offend. I do pretty well most of the time but sometimes I miss the mark.

Worshipful tight rope walking.

Truth, however, trumps good manners.

Prayer you know is not about changing God’s mind to help us out. Prayer is about God changing our minds to get up off our knees and do the good that God would have us do.

Phillips Brooks, the 19thcentury Bishop from Boston and rector of Trinity, Copley Square, famously said: The purpose of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

 Both pastoral and the prophetic.

And I am responsible for my words – especially my words from the pulpit.  And as I wrote above, I do so believe: Word of Life, your words matter and so do ours. If we speak in the tongues of mortals but have not love our words ring hollow.  Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

On Sunday, preacher and people, together wrestle with angels. Sermons, at their best, help us think, help us remember, help us dream, help us to believe —  that which truly matters most.

Above all, I try at least to leave people with a little hope before they head out the doors and go back to their daily lives.

Getting my turn in the pulpit is a privilege. My turn to lift up the priesthood of every single person praying in our pews.

But imagine, if instead of praising the Leaves of Love: Refugee Family Fundraiser, I instilled fear of foreigners and immigrants.

Imagine, if instead of promoting Carpenters Shelter breakfasts and dinners, I railed about withholding help from our needy neighbors.

What if, instead of encouraging us all to strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being, I insisted that we prioritize ourselves, the people who look like us and talk like us and think like us.

Well, I might get fired. Indeed, I should get fired.

And my pulpit is not a bully one.

It is election season and midterms are upon us. And lots of powerful political types are both using and abusing their bully pulpits.

Preaching xenophobic, homophobic, vitriolic, hateful, racist, vile rhetoric.

Words matter. Words of love sow love. Hateful words sow hate.

And believe it or not, we are baptized to vote. To vote out of love for our fellow human beings — not solely out of self-interest.

Whether for Republicans or Democrats or Libertarians or Green Partiers or Independents (or Others I am not aware of),  we Christians are  to vote for the greater good.

So, on Tuesday say a little prayer before you cast your ballot.  Let’s all do the best we can to vote the bums out and the good guys in!

JoaniSign