Saturday, April 12, 2014

Preacher's Study - Good Friday 2014; Cross

The Preacher’s Study – Good Friday
First thoughts on the sermons for the Paschal Triduum

D. Jay Koyle

I’d venture that the cross is still one of the most identifiable images in the world today, perhaps rivaled in popular recognition and frequency of appearance only by the golden arches and the Nike swoosh.

Yet, while it may pop up more consistently before the human eye than most other trademarks, increasingly the cross has been stripped of its narrative, becoming little more than a meaningless fashion accessory in the minds of many.  

A few years back someone passed along to me an article they had clipped from a women’s fashion magazine. It outlined the “musts” of crosses as accessories. Accompanied by a collage of photos, the piece offered advice on colors, sizes and styles, all depending on the outfit you were wearing, your hairstyle, your height, your weight.

A few days later, I picked up the newspaper and noticed a page-length picture of a popular supermodel, crosses dangling in front of an open shirt. It was tied to an article that, again, went on to consider the fashion ins and outs of the cross. The headline read “Cross Purposes,” the pullout calling this symbol of ours “one of the coolest accessories around.”

Now, I don’t know how all of this makes you feel. Would it surprise you if I confessed that I’m not all that bothered by it? A general populace that doesn’t grasp the importance of this key Christian symbol does not astonish me. I am quite disturbed, however, when we Christians underestimate its significance.

No doubt, we are well aware that the cross plays a central role in the Christian imagination. We sing of it in our hymns, speak of it in our prayers, hear it referenced in readings and sermons, and gaze at it week by week. Many of us trace it on our foreheads or across our bodies.

However, I wonder if, in some sense, the cross has become too insubstantial for us. To what degree do we allow it to contour the shape our lives and quicken our perception of who we really are?

The cross didn’t always lend itself so readily, of course, to either religious devotion or jewelry design. As you may know, in the first century of the Common Era it was a form of execution, meant to rob those who opposed the Empire not only of their life, but also their humanity.

It was also an effective means of keeping conquered peoples in their place. “Disturb the pax Romana,” it said, “and this will be your story!” It was the ultimate dead end, a grim reminder to despairing people of their powerlessness.

However, not long after they encountered a crucified Jesus freshly burst forth from the tomb, Christians employed this image to tell the story of a totally different reality: that of a God who was transforming not only human life, but also the whole of creation.

The structures of domineering power, the way of “might makes right,” peace by force, division by rank or class, exploitation for gain – all were shown to have no teeth. A new reality was breaking in – call it the Kingdom of God – and the cross became the sign that nothing could prevent God from setting things right.

In next to no time, the cross became the mark of a people who had set about living according to this new order, even if it had yet to fully arrive.

That understanding is a far cry from a church that sees the cross’s story as one only concerned with the assurance of individual salvation rather than the liberation of the whole cosmos, as one only about the promise that Christ will help me cope with my issues in this world rather than shape me to live by the new world already underway.

Perhaps that makes Good Friday – the whole Paschal Triduum really – such a gift. The cross always stands central to what we are about. However, there are times when we need extra prompting and prodding to appreciate just what this symbol, this story means to us as the Body of Christ.

Very dramatic things can happen, it seems to me, when ordinary people allow the gospel to shape their lives. In the church’s continual act of reading the lives of ordinary people into the story of Jesus, character is formed and a new world is offered.

I saw a wonderful documentary a number of years back. It chronicled some extraordinary deeds by some very ordinary folk the little French community of Le Chambon.

During the Nazi occupation of France, more than three thousand Jewish refugees were rescued by these ordinary people, most of whom were Huguenots.

In 1942, buses showed up to cart away Jews. The Vichy police demanded to be shown where the Jews were being hid. The pastor and people of the town refused to comply. In a climate where Jews were marginalized and persecuted, this community welcomed them into their homes and hid them at substantial risk. Its people would sing to call their Jewish neighbors out into the open when the immediate danger had passed.

I find it just as impressive that these people resisted the police with all the cunning at their disposal to prevent the hidden Jews from being discovered, but they never attempted any violence in doing so. Why? Because they were shaped by the story of Jesus. They believed that even the police were their neighbors.

In the church’s continual act of reading the lives of ordinary people into the story of Jesus, character is formed and a new world is offered.

Everything we are, everything we're called to be is wrapped up in Christ crucified. 

The cross stood for scandal in the past, and seems today to be nothing more than a meaningless fashion accessory to many. But for those of us who believe, it is the way of life. It is the revelation of the One who is our meaning and promise. It is the story contouring the shape of our lives.


Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).

Crucifixion sculptures by David Mach

Preacher's Study - Maundy Thurs 2014; Footwashing

The Preacher’s Study – Maundy Thursday
First thoughts on the sermons for the Paschal Triduum

D. Jay Koyle

When the footwashing is only a story on the printed page or proclaimed from the ambo, it’s easy to view it as little more than an object lesson; Jesus is using some props to make a point. When understood in that way, the point seems straightforward. So, unlike the disciples framed in the scene, we don’t squirm. Rather, we nod our heads in agreement. We should be more willing to engage in exactly what footwashing sounds like – humble service to others in the name of Christ. That’s where we easily end up with a footwashing confined to the biblical page.

However, I’ve noticed that when the footwashing breaks loose from the book, some of the fidgeting and the nervous, red-faced giggles, even the outright cries of protest in the story, tend to be recapitulated in the pews, no matter how long the members of a congregation have been doing the ritual together. 

It’s one thing to watch John’s footage of the disciples taking off their shoes and socks in the upper room. It’s quite another matter, however, to undress your feet and feel the cool church floor pressed beneath them as you make your way to the front.

What’s it like to allow your naked foot to be held and bathed, in the sight of all, by another’s hand? Or for those who have always just stayed in the pew and peeked with curiosity from behind the shelter of a prayer book or worship bulletin, what’s it like to imagine doing such a thing?

Let’s be honest, it’s a disturbing thing to deploy basins and pitchers in the sanctuary. Submitting our feet to their water unmasks our profound vulnerability, the vulnerability we mostly manage to hide, even from ourselves. The sense of control over life – our lives – that we so methodically cultivate and deeply cherish seems to wash away like a sandcastle on the shore.

That isn’t easy for us Twenty-first Century go-getters to swallow. It’s one thing to give lip service to our dependence on God and need of one another, but it’s another matter to do so in practice. 

We have long proclaimed that the Body of Christ is not only on the Table, but also around the Table. But it’s another thing to say that the Body of Christ is tender hands and cracked-heeled feet meeting in an earthenware basin filled with water – hands and feet that, as St. Paul was prone to remind us, need one another to be complete.

Like the disciples, each obliged to feel the water between his toes as their teacher and Master rubbed away the dirt and dried their ankles with a towel, I suspect the resistance for most of us is not to washing, but rather to being washed.

Yet, says Jesus, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me – no participation in me.”

Through this strange gesture of hospitality Jesus draws us more deeply into the circle of love that marks the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to one another and to the world. This love, which inspired Jesus to lay down his garments and wash his disciples' feet, is also the love that led him to lay down his life.

Whether in foot washing, bread breaking or cross dying, it is this limitless love that gives us life and holds the sure promise of life for the world.

So, despite my reluctance, I know my feet belong in that basin. I know that, somehow, allowing my feet to be washed draws me more deeply into the life that is Christ. I cannot serve apart from the One who came not to be served, but to serve. I cannot be filled with new life in the Spirit apart from the One who emptied himself.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).

Monday, April 7, 2014

Preacher’s Study – Year A, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2014

The Preacher’s Study
First thoughts on next Sunday’s sermon,
Sunday of the Passion

D. Jay Koyle

We are the stories we tell. The stories we tell form and transform us. They shape our view of the world and have the potential to spark change in the world itself. We are, or at least we are becoming, the stories we tell.

This insight, this wisdom lies behind our weekly rehearsal of the gospel story through scriptures proclaimed, rites celebrated, feasts and seasons observed.

Our “storytelling” has particular potency as the church gathers to mark the days of palms and Passion, Resurrection and New Creation.

Today's lections escort us from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the seeming defeat of his Passion. This Sunday marks the first step of transition from our Lenten journey to the fifty-day celebration of Easter.

The central focus of today's worship is the entire Passion narrative read in all its power and drama. Essentially, two “kingdoms” are on display in the narrative of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. The one seen in Jesus and that personified by Pilate and Herod stand in stark contrast to each another. The latter stands for greed, status, ruthlessness, trust in economic or military might. That embodied in Christ is characterized by non-violence, service, compassion, solidarity with the world’s vulnerable and rejected, trust in God.

For most of us, both dominions make a persuasive claim on our lives. Through our participation in the liturgies of Holy Week, the Spirit orients us to active citizenship in the everlasting Reign of God, immersing us once again in the story of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. It is vital to recognize that this story is our story, too – the story of the baptized, the story of our world, the story of God at work today.

Attending to Paul’s words from the Letter to the Philippians can help the preacher bring home this recognition. The conflict and transformation painted on a cosmic canvass in the Gospel’s Passion narrative is inked by the apostle on the sketchpad of our life together as church. Paul exhorts us to be of the same mind as was in Christ Jesus – humility, service, fidelity to God, love – an invitation to share with Christ in the mystery of his Passion so we might know the power of his new life.

To deliver this message, however, Paul does not drone on in moralistic tones. Instead, he breaks out in doxology, counting on the Philippian congregation to join its voice with his, hoping that singing together the story of Christ will issue in unity, joy and persistence in faith. In short, Paul offers a vivid depiction of what Luther called “the celestial and eternal fire,” the self-emptying love of Christ, for the purpose of persuading his listeners (then and now) to exercise a loving concern for one another.

It is important to approach any aspect of this Holy Week’s worship not as a dramatic reenactment, but rather as an opportunity to deepen our participation in the life of the risen Christ, surrendering our lives to God so we might live in the power of God's grace.

Preaching can support this focus by encouraging listeners’ identification with Jesus. It is a common practice, of course, for sermons to liken listeners to other characters in the biblical tome. This tendency seems reasonable; it is difficult to mistake most of us for the sinless Savior. Thus a profound identification between Christ and Christian sounds presumptuous.

Certainly, the preacher must not idealize the church and its members. However, at this central moment of the church year, it will prove efficacious to explore the ultimate implication of Christians’ baptismal identity as those who have been immersed into Christ’s death so that they might live his risen life. The vitality of the church and its members is fueled when they are reminded about “who and whose” they are and then exhorted to live out of that reality, that story – their story.

Jay Koyle is president of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. He serves as the Congregational Development Officer for the Diocese of Algoma (Anglican Church of Canada).

"Calvary" by Marc Chagall