Apr 13, 2022

Spy Wednesday Reflection

On this Spy Wednesday, so-called because we hear the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus on theWednesday of Holy Week, I thought I'd share a brief reflection. It's based on the gospel reading appointed for the day (John 13:21-32).

The Wheels are in Motion

The wheels are in motion. That’s the phrase I always come back to on the Wednesday of Holy Week. For Christians marking this week with intention, the wheels are in motion and there will be no stopping the inevitable moments in this story, in our story. 


Jesus will be betrayed and given into the hands of sinners. The sham trial will follow its course. Pilate will wash his hands. An innocent man will be strung up on a cross to endure a painful death. Peter will deny Jesus three times. The disciples will flee in fear. The wheels are in motion and nothing can stop what’s barreling down the track to an ignominious end. It will soon be finished. 


Jesus dips the bread into the cup and gives it to the one who would betray him — a sort of anti-communion. And Judas leaves to do what he was going to do. To sell Jesus out. To be rewarded for his betrayal. As John writes in his starkly poetic way, “After receiving the piece of bread, Judas immediately went out. And it was night.”

 

But here’s the hope on this painful day during this painful week. We hear that “when he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.”


It’s not enough of a marvel to learn that Jesus will be glorified, but that he will be glorified “at once.” Not in a few days, not when the resurrection has been realized, not when Mary Magdalene shares the incredible news of Jesus’ rising with the other disciples. Jesus is glorified “at once.”


How is this even possible? Because God’s plan is at work. Not the plan of the Roman authorities or the plan of the brow-beaten and terrified disciples; not the world’s plan or Satan’s plan. God’s plan is at work. And while the unfolding plan of salvation is a mystery to mere mortals, certainly a mystery to us, God’s unfolding plan of salvation is what’s set in motion. The wheels of life rather than the wheels of death are in motion.  


And for this reason, even in the midst of impending death, hope is offered on this day. Remember when Jesus told his mother at the wedding of Cana, at the very beginning of John’s Gospel, that his hour had not come? Jesus’ hour has come. And while Judas plays a particular role in the unfolding drama, the working out of God’s plan of salvation for the whole world is so much greater than 30 pieces of silver. In the end, Judas is a bit player. For the very wheels of salvation are in motion.


Image: The Taking of Christ by Caravaggio (1602)

Feb 17, 2022

In Good Faith: Marking Milestones

In my February In Good Faith column, I write about celebrating 21st birthdays amid a pandemic and the importance of marking milestones.

Marking Milestones


When I had recently turned 21, I went out to dinner with my mother. I remember the barely-legal-

herself waitress coming over to our table, taking our drink orders, and demanding in full sincerity to see my mother’s ID. My mom met the waitress’s gaze, pointed at me, and proclaimed, “Here’s my ID — my 21-year-old son!” As I recall, the waitress slowly backed away and brought her a glass of Pinot Grigio.


I thought about this encounter recently as our youngest son, Zak, just turned 21. Now, I’m not sharing this because I’m way too young (in my mind) to have another child of legal drinking age. That’s another story. But Zak was our second child to hit this major milestone during Covid. 


Because restrictions have eased, we were able to take him out to a bar for his first legal drink. Soon enough he ditched us to spend time with friends, but it was fun to recognize and mark this moment with him.


When our eldest son Ben hit the magic age in the midst of the lockdown, we made him sit out in the driveway and hold a “Honk I’m 21” sign. Since we live on Main Street, cars were plentiful, and I swear, I’ve rarely had more fun in my entire life, waving to cars and seeing and hearing the enthusiastic responses.


All of which is to say that marking milestones is important. We do this on birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and a host of other occasions that blend our lives with our calendars. We mark them partly out of obligation and adherence to social norms, but mostly out of love. We celebrate milestones because they mark the very fabric of our lives, and convey just how much we care about the person in question. Without milestones, we may simply overlook chances to celebrate one another in intentional ways. And that would diminish the relationships that matter the most.


This pandemic has disrupted many of our most cherished milestone traditions. Yet I love how we have collectively adapted over the past two years, even as we have pined for a return to the way we have long celebrated together. Speaking of which, will blowing out candles on a birthday cake go the way of bobbing for apples? In a post-Covid world, it’s certainly hard to imagine breathing all over a cake and then inviting people to have a piece. 


But drive-by birthday celebrations, waving to grandma from outside the nursing home, and Zoom holiday gatherings have all been ways we adapted and found ways to mark milestones despite trying circumstances. Whenever we move into a post-pandemic world, I hope this time will help us to never again take these celebrations for granted. Few things in life are as important as recognizing and nurturing our life-giving relationships. 


We’ve proven that we can do this when conditions are less than ideal. And while we may not be blowing germs all over birthday cakes anytime soon, I’m sure we’ll continue to discover new and creative ways to celebrate the most important people in our lives.


Jan 10, 2022

In Good Faith: In the Footsteps of Holiness

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about an encounter (sort of) with the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the inspiration of walking on hallowed ground. 

In the Footsteps of Holiness


One of the things I cherish about visiting hallowed ground is that sense of walking in the

footsteps of those who exist in our minds as larger-than-life figures.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I once toured the dugout and clubhouse of the old Memorial Stadium. As a young Orioles fan, walking the same ground as Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken was awe inspiring. As an adult, I had a similar experience sitting in the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Being in the physical space where her gentle, yet iron-willed courage played out was incredibly moving to me.


It was in this vein that I learned of another such encounter, one fueled by love and justice. In the days after Archbishop Desmond Tutu died, I was reminded that he once officiated a wedding at the parish I serve. This remarkable and holy man had walked down our aisle and stood at our altar. He had gazed upon our stained glass windows and stood in our Memorial Garden. 


In the days following Bishop Tutu’s death we, along with churches throughout the world, rang bells at St. John’s to offer thanks for his extraordinary witness to the demands of justice and the reconciling power of love. The groom from that 1999 wedding day joined us for a time of prayer and reflection.


Stewart Ting Chong served on Tutu’s staff for seven years during the apartheid era in South Africa. For Stewart, Bishop Tutu was more than a global icon, he was a friend, mentor, and confidant. In reflecting on his friend, he wrote, “There was, for me, no one braver, more outspoken in the defense of the oppressed, the persecuted, and the discriminated, and no one more prayerfully contemplative than the Arch.” 


Several years ago, I was privileged to travel with a group from our parish to visit South Africa. We visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, toured Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work of Bishop Tutu.


This transformative, inspiring, and heart breaking pilgrimage was made even more poignant when I learned of Bishop Tutu’s connection to St. John’s. Somehow the experiences we shared during that time, which continue to resonate, were made that much more real by the knowledge that the archbishop had, for a brief time, joined us on our journey.


As Stewart also wrote in the hours after the bells tolled in honor of his friend, “The Archbishop’s death is not the end of the battle he waged for goodness. It is the beginning for each one of us who holds his name in high esteem. Discrimination, injustice, persecution and oppression will not end unless we pick up his mantle of righteousness and call to account those who continue to tarnish the ideals that he had so faithfully strived to achieve. Let us find our voice and speak out against oppression. Let us speak out against the injustices inflicted on communities around the world. Let us hold accountable those who plunder the coffers intended to help the weak, hungry, and destitute. And let us put the words we speak into action with righteous indignation and leave this world a better and kinder place for the generations that follow. Let us pledge to continue his work.”


To which all we can do is say, “Amen.” And then get to work.


Dec 19, 2021

In Good Faith: The Mess of Christmas

In the Christmas edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the messiness of that first Christmas and how it keeps the messes in our own lives - and the world - in perspective. 

The Mess of Christmas


I have nothing against dainty, hand-painted porcelain nativity sets that sit atop mantlepieces in well-appointed homes. Many of them are quite beautiful, especially when accompanied by stockings hung by the chimney with care. And if they draw us into contemplation of the story of Jesus’ birth, I’m definitely on Team Porcelain Nativity Set.

The only problem with them is when they lead us into the temptation of sentimentalizing Christmas. In other words, this time of year should be full of precious moments, but it shouldn’t be all about Precious Moments.


This year, in particular, feels less than precious. Covid is again running rampant, there’s great uncertainty as to how to safely gather at home and in churches, supply chain issues are disrupting our best-laid plans, and everyone is exhausted by the prospect of a third straight year of pandemic living. 


The good news is that our current state of chaos has a lot more in common with the first Christmas than any hand-crafted nativity set. After all, giving birth is messy business! And it must have been particularly stressful to go into labor in a place so far away from family and friends. Not to mention the conditions: cows and sheep are dirty and wander all over the place; shepherds generally need a shower; and angels are terrifying.


And yet, despite all the messiness, despite everything not going according to plan, despite all the expectations not met, Christ our Savior was born. God entered the world in human form not into a state of perfection, but in the midst of a mess. I actually take great comfort in this. Because if Jesus himself arrived into a state of disarray, there’s hope for his entrance into our own often disordered lives. 


Of course, much of the messiness into which Jesus was born had more to do with the human condition than with the maelstrom around the manger. Because unlike that porcelain nativity set, we’re not shiny and perfect and set apart. Rather, we’re flawed and dented and set within the context of our broken humanity. The miracle of Christmas is that, despite our imperfections and the mess we make of things, Jesus still shows up to walk with us, to live with us, to love us.


Which means a more accurate nativity scene might be the PlayMobil version my kids had when they were young. The sheep were strewn all over the place, the Magi were replaced with Power Rangers, dinosaurs were involved, and this all took place not on a distant mantlepiece, but on the family room floor. Which feels like a more authentic version of how things unfolded on that long-ago night in Bethlehem — accessible, authentic, and messy.


Whatever we do or fail to get done this Christmas, remember that God will love us anyway. Whatever mess Jesus encounters when he arrives or whatever state of chaos we find ourselves in on December 25, he will love us anyway.


Hold on to that love, friends. And know that whatever mess we’ve made of things, and no matter how messy our world feels right now, God is right in the midst of it all.

Dec 8, 2021

Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink

One of the two sermons I wrote for Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C is bookended by homilies written by Jesuit superstars James Martin and Greg Boyle. The other is right next to one from Richard Rohr. This is pretty rarified spiritual air and it was an honor to be invited to contribute to this collection.

Even better, is that all the proceeds from this book go to support ministries that promote access to clean drinking water. I love this project, part of an ongoing series from Clear Faith Publishing called Homilists for the Homeless. All of the participants donate their submissions so that book sales help feed and support those in need here at home and around the world.

So...buy a copy or five! They make great Christmas gifts and provide inspiration throughout the coming year to complement the cycle of Sunday lectionary readings.

I'm grateful to Fran Szpylczyn for asking me to participate in this project. How do I know Fran? From Twitter, of course. See? Good things can come from the morass of social media!

Here are the four charities your purchase of Thirsty will support:

Thirst Project
Thirst Project is a non-profit organization that exists to end the global water crisis and the fact that over 785 million people on the planet do not have access to safe, clean water. They travel across the world to educate individuals about the global water crisis and challenge them to fundraise to build freshwater wells in developing nations and impoverished communities. They guarantee that 100% of all public donations go directly toward their well projects. Over the last decade, Thirst Project has raised more than $11 million, which has given over 500,000 people in thirteen countries safe, clean water for life. 

Water For People
Water For People envisions a world where every person has access to reliable and safe water and sanitation services. Water For People exists to promote the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services, accessible to all, and sustained by strong communities, businesses, and governments. They have impacted 1.54 million people with their sanitation services and created 2,436 permanent jobs through their work. 

charity: water
charity: water believes that sustainable work is locally led. Along with implementing community-owned water projects, their local partners help facilitate comprehensive water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programming to protect everyone’s long-term health. During the past fifteen years, they have funded over 79,000 water projects in 29 countries. 

Clean Water Fund
Clean Water Fund's mission is to develop strong grassroots environmental leadership and to bring together diverse constituencies to work cooperatively for changes that improve their lives, focused on health, consumer, environmental and community problems. Based in Washington, DC, Clean Water Fund operates locally staffed environmental and health protection programs serving communities in more than fifteen US states.