Jason Alexander

Sermons and other writing.

A Pastrami on Rye and the Bread of Life

Jon Reiner, a middle-aged father, husband, and long-time sufferer of Crohn’s disease, thought he was on the mend. He hadn’t had any tell-tale abdominal pain in over a year and his doctors were cautiously optimistic that his remission would continue. Until one fateful morning, just as he was about to sit down for breakfast, he doubled over in pain knowing instantly that something was seriously wrong. He went to the hospital and the doctors confirmed that Jon’s bowel had indeed ruptured, a life-threatening condition.

After touch-and-go, emergency surgery the doctors did prevail. Jon was stable, but far from out of the woods. Due to a high risk of infection had they done more, the repairs the surgeons made were only partial. Jon would have to let his digestive system rest in order for it to heal on its own.

And this is where our brave patient’s journey begins in earnest. Armed with a hopeful attitude and wisdom from dealing with similar, though less severe, complications of his disease in the past, Jon played with the cards he had been dealt. He was handed a backpack which contained a food pump that would essentially feed him intravenously while his gut healed, though no one was sure how long that might take. But no matter, Jon was assured that the pump would deliver all the nutrients he needed to live. He could go back to work and do everything he normally would--except eat regular food.

And the plan worked. At dinner time Jon sat on the couch and fired up the food pump while his wife and kids ate real food at the dinner table. And since his body was getting what it needed, he didn’t actually feel hungry--at least for the first couple of weeks. But then something strange began to happen. Although Jon was not actually starving, he began to crave food. During his time on the couch with his food pump companion he would conjure up his greatest food memories, one in particular of an unbelievable pastrami sandwich from a Jewish deli he had frequented. He would go online and search restaurant menus and fantasize about actually being able to ingest something.

After a couple of months it got to the point where he just couldn’t take it any longer. He had to do something. So he got it in his mind that if he could just walk to this one particular restaurant he loved and look into the window upon the diners enjoying their food, he might be calmed by some vicarious culinary experience. He took his walk only to discover that the restaurant had closed--no one inside enjoying a meal, instead only dust and plastic covering the walls and floor from a renovation. In Jon’s condition this was a tragedy, and he set out blindly in desperation, wandering the neighborhood streets searching for something, he knew not what, to ease his pain.

As dusk set in Jon caught sight of a smoking grill in someone’s backyard. Pork chops, he thought. The gate was open and no one was around, so Jon, in his exhausted, delirious state, took it upon himself to finish cooking this person’s meal. He opened the lid, flipped the chops, decided four minutes more and they’d be perfect. As he started the countdown in his head, the backdoor opened and a man in an apron, cocktail in hand, and a surprised look on his face stepped out. They looked at each other for a minute and Jon said the only thing he could: “I think they’re about done,” and he turned around to go home, back to the food pump that would deliver all the nutrition he would ever need to live.

We’ll get back to Jon in a minute, and rest assured, things do get better for the poor guy. But I do want to talk about the Gospel.

Food, glorious food. That’s what the people want. Over the past couple of weeks we have heard of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of thousands of people with fives loaves of bread and two fish, and we’ve seen the crowds track Jesus down still hungry and wanting more. They chased him and his disciples across the sea to Capernaum. And Jesus rebukes them (and you can hear the frustration in his voice), “you’re following me because you ate your fill and you want more food, not because you saw signs--not because you saw the deeper message I have to offer. Do not work for the food that parishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which I, the Son of Man, can give you.” And today we hear Jesus teaching the same message in the synagogue, and still frustration and confusion is the reaction from his listeners.

Admittedly Jesus’ plea is a little ambiguous. Neither the crowd nor the disciples really get it. Food is food, right? Moses gave manna from heaven to eat, Jesus gave bread and fish--all the nutrition anyone would ever need to live, right? Wrong. Jesus is talking about something more here. He’s asking us to believe in a possibility--the possibility that an encounter with him, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” is essential to our existence. Jesus desires not only that we think about him but that we feed on him, find food for our souls in him, implying that we could starve to death without him.

After Jon Reiner’s ill-fated evening stroll, he got sick again. His stomach was bothering him and the food pump was literally driving him crazy, so he found himself back in the doctor’s office. Same story: too great a risk of infection for another full-blown operation, he’s let his gut rest for awhile now, the food pump has been working and yet he’s still getting sick. The only thing left to do, the doctors say, is to try and eat something and see what happens. So Jon sets his food pump aside and gives it a shot. For the first few days things seem to go down well, but he can’t seem to taste anything. Turns out your tastebuds can get a little out of practice if they’re not used regularly. Well, one day Jon decides to go for broke, and he returns to his favorite Jewish deli and orders a pastrami on rye. And he concentrates hard on tasting this thing. And sure enough, after a couple of bites he begins to taste some of the salt in the meat, then the caraway seed in the rye. And all at once, he’s back. And the turns to the guy next to him and he says, “this is the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten!” to which the guy replies, “you think that’s good, you should try the meatloaf!”

I hear Jon Reiner’s tale as a Eucharistic experience. He’s a man who had easy access to all the nutrition he ever would need to live, and yet he was starving. And when he was finally able to take a bite of, and taste that pastrami sandwich a whole new world opened up to him--a life worth living again. And this is what Jesus offers us--the food we need not simply to live, but to thrive. As George Herbert famously puts it, God offers us an invitation: “‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’” Jesus insists that we find the true bread in him, in the Body of Christ--that is, in our encounters with one another, in our conversations, in our shared experiences, in breaking bread and passing the cup. And in eating our fill of this bounty we find relief from starvation and discover salvation.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Luke's, Hot Springs | August 22, 2021
Proper 16, Year B
audio

References

Reiner, Jon. The Man Who Couldn’t Eat: A Memoir. 1st Gallery Books hardcover ed. New York: Gallery Books, 2011.

Abumrad, Jad. “Gutless.” Radiolab. Accessed April 2, 2012. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/segments/197243-gutless.

Three Friends and the Desert

There were once three Christian friends who had reputations for working hard at whatever it was they put their minds to. They all took seriously the call of the Gospel to live a charitable life, and each chose to express this call in their own way. The first friend became a peacemaker, striving to mediate disputes and encourage the mending of fractured relationships. The second friend chose to become a physician, laboring to care for and heal the sick and infirm. The third friend left the noise and frenetic activity of the city altogether, and made a home in the desert to focus on quiet prayer and stillness. After a number of years, the first friend became weary, burdened by the endless cycle of violence and vengeance that plagued the world. The peacemaker, then, sought out the healer, who also was overwhelmed by the extent of world’s brokenness. No matter how many people were healed, many more became sick. Both friends felt that their pursuits, however noble and charitable, had been in vain. So, the two friends went to the desert to visit the third, seeking guidance, begging for an answer to their struggles. The three friends sat together in silence for a time, then the desert dweller poured water into a bowl and asked them to look at the water. The water danced back and forth in the bowl, splashing against the sides, rippling and swirling. They sat awhile longer. Then the third friend said, “Look how still the water is now.” When they looked down again they saw their own faces. The water had become a mirror. The desert dweller said to the peacemaker and the healer: “It’s that way for someone who lives among human beings. The agitations, the shake-ups, block one from seeing one’s faults; but once one becomes quiet, still, especially in the desert, then one sees one’s failings” (Harmless vii).

This story is believed to have circulated widely in fourth-century Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Arabia among a unique group of Christians known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Like the third friend in the story, these desert Christians responded to the Gospel by leaving the conveniences and distractions of mainstream society behind in order to better know themselves and God. St. Antony, one of the first and best known Desert Christians, credits Matthew's account of Jesus's charge to the rich young man to "sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor" for his decision to move to the desert. It sounds extreme to modern ears, and it is. It was extreme back in the fourth century as well. And yet, there is wisdom here.

The story about the three friends has something important to say to us today. You and I would most likely identify with the peacemaker or the healer. We are followers of Christ who have chosen to express our faith by doing charitable work in the world, whatever our vocation may be. Instead of identifying with the bit about selling our possessions, we tend to find inspiration from Jesus's words about caring for the least, the lonely, and the lost. But, what happens if--well, when--when we become overwhelmed by the endless work there is to do? Like the peacemaker and the healer discovered, the world's plights are inexhaustible. Even Jesus reminds us that we will always have the poor with us--a truth that goes against the grain of our can-do, fix-it attitude. The Christian tradition tells us that there is also great value in practicing stillness and solitude. Not that it trumps an active life of ministry, rather it compliments the work we do in the world. We can labor for peace. We can care for the sick. But we must also sit for awhile.

In today's passage from Mark, we find Jesus and his disciples fully engaged in an active, worldly ministry. They had been sent in twos, casting out unclean spirits, anointing with oil, and healing the sick. They gather around Jesus to give a report of their travels, and he says to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile." It's important to recognize that Jesus isn't talking about our modern concept of rest and relaxation here. He's not encouraging the disciples to go to a movie or take the kids to Disneyland--nothing that would fill the space in their lives that is freed up by resting from worldly ministry. The space--the emptiness--is, in fact, exactly what Jesus is hoping his disciples will discover. It's also notable that the Greek word Jesus uses for "deserted place" is the same word we find translated as "wilderness" in Mark's Gospel: "A voice shouting in the wilderness," or "He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by satan." A "deserted place," or "the wilderness" is where God's people go to encounter God.

If you have ever tried to simply be quiet for awhile you know just how illusive that emptiness can be. Perhaps you've tried a spiritual practice like centering prayer or other forms of meditation. You know that as soon as you try to quiet your mind you are inundated with innumerable thoughts. Often the thoughts are random and harmless, and at other times they are powerful--even troubling. We may be surprised to find that we are angry or sad. We may discover that we are craving something--attention, recognition, or maybe a quick glance at our phones, or another cup of coffee. This is what the story I began with is getting at. When we first stop, our minds are like that newly poured bowl of water, splashing about like waves on a stormy sea. But if we sit awhile, the water settles and we can begin to see our reflection emerge in the stillness. We can recognize patterns in the chatter of our minds and get better at letting the unhelpful thoughts go. And, eventually, within the emptiness that we have uncovered we discover God. The one within whom we live and move and have our being.

How long has it been since you have "come away" to a deserted place all by yourselves, a place where there truly are no distractions? No COVID statistics to pull up on your phone. No Netflix shows to binge. No Amazon.com carts to fill with items you don't need. No thoughts, even, to think. Nothing. Only stillness. Only quiet. Only emptiness. Only God. Jesus commended this practice to his early disciples, and he commends it to us as well. But I have to warn you. When you choose to put aside all the enticing distractions our minds delight in, God begins to work on us in surprising new ways, and what emerges is love--love for others whom we may have been avoiding but need to reconnect with, renewed love for the Gospel work we do in the world, and even love for ourselves--awareness of our faults, and then forgiveness. All it takes is a prayer cushion, a chair, even a pew. The desert awaits.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Paul's, Newport | July 18, 2021
Proper 11, Year B
audio

References

Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Kingdom Eyes

Last week my son, Luke, ranked up in his martial arts class. It was a big deal. He's been a student of Coung Nhu for seven years--he's 14 now--and by passing this latest test, he has graduated into the more advanced classes with the adults. Coung Nhu is a branch of karate that combines both quick, explosive movement with a softer, more contemplative, flowing style similar to Tai Chi. Luke did a fantastic job during the test. I usually see him at home behind a computer monitor playing video games or doing schoolwork, so to watch him move through his Coung Nhu routines with such confidence, precision, and skill was really impressive. Passing this test gained him a brown stripe for his green belt. This transition is kind of analogous to confirmation in the church--he has made the choice for himself to commit to the practice of Coung Nhu. It's no longer my job to make him go to class. He has his own faith, if you will, in the practice. He sees its benefits--the fruits of seven years of consistency--and he wants to go deeper. I'm a proud dad.

At the end of the test, the sensei awarded new ranks to the students in a familiar liturgical format. He had them kneel and stretch out their hands to receive the stripe that they would later sew onto their belts--"You can't let your parents do it for you!" he cautioned. "It's time for you to learn to sew." The sensei then gave a brief "homily" of sorts, encouraging the students in the philosophy of the Coung Nhu style. There was one part in particular that really caught my attention, and that was his description of the meaning behind the colors of the belts and stripes that designate rank.

The white belt, which is the beginner rank, represents a seed that you would sew into fertile soil. The seed contains unrealized, unorganized energy with powerful potential to grow and bear fruit, but first it needs to be cared for--watered and protected--so that it might take root. The green belt, which follows the white, represents a sapling, still fragile and in need of care, this is a formative time during which the roots sink deeper and a sturdy foundation is established for the brown belt, or the bark that begins to form on the outside of the tree. Stability and strength characterize this stage. The tree shifts from needing to be protected to being a protector--a contributing member of the forest, adding stability to the community. And finally, the black belt represents the shade that a mature tree casts in order to nurture the growth of others. Black belt status is not so much about personal achievement as it is about a role of responsibility in the community.

As I sat on the dojo mat listening to the sensei's words, I couldn't help but hear a parallel with the parable of the mustard seed in today's passage from Mark. You probably hear it too. "A mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade." Jesus compares this natural, yet wondrous, process of growth to the kingdom of God. One interpretation of this parable would be to associate the growth of the mustard seed with our own growth as we become more aware of the presence of God in our lives. And from this perspective we can begin to see that a seed is more than just a seed.

Now, I'm not proposing that we start granting ranks and wearing belts to demarcate the various stages of spiritual growth within the Christian community (although, sometimes I think that would be a fun experiment). Our tradition has long cautioned against focusing on achievement in the spiritual life. It's unproductive to continually wonder "What stage am I in?" or "How far have I progressed?" Spirituality is not so much quantitative as it is qualitative. There are no tests to pass or sensei's to impress. Rather, the spiritual life, as Thomas Merton puts it, is about "discovering what we already have ... Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess" (53). A luxuriant shrub with large branches that birds can nest in is simply the full expression of the tiny mustard seed. Just as a stable, compassionate, and generative Christian, beloved by God, is the full expression of any one of us.

I once had the great fortune to spend a week at Plum Village. It's a Buddhist monastery in France established by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk with a gift for inter-religious dialogue. He wrote a book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, which has opened many minds to the compatibility of these two faiths. I will never forget one afternoon when I encountered a monk in the kitchen. He had a big, mischievous smile on his face, and he walked over to me, held out his hand, and said, in broken English, "what are these?" He was pointing to what looked like seeds, and so I said as much. And he laughed this big, jovial laugh as if he had just landed the greatest joke in the world. Of course, I was clueless. So, he moved in closer and pointed to the seeds again. No, "these aren't seeds," he said. "They're a lot of hard work." And with that, he walked away.

I admit, it took me awhile to figure out what this crazy monk was talking about, but I eventually realized he was trying to get me expand my vision. Just as Paul asks us to no longer regard anyone from a "human point of view," but rather to see them as if they are "in Christ," this monk wanted me to look beyond the seeds to see the mixture of water and soil nutrients that encourage them to sprout, to the sun that shines down to nurture the stalk and the head, to the hours of faithful human labor spent harvesting the grain, to the artisans who transform the grain into the food that nourishes the bodies of the members of the community. Indeed, these were no mere seeds.

The same is true for you and me. Jesus's parable of the mustard seed is his way of encouraging us to expand our vision. He wants us to see through "kingdom eyes," if you will, which are capable of revealing one another's true value. If you look deeply at a new Coung Nhu student wearing a clean, crisp white belt, and peer beyond their shiny, untried exterior, you'll see the parents, or friends who encouraged them to take a risk and try it on. You'll see years of training--of failures and successes--of heartbreak and joy. You'll see fellow students and senseis--companions and teachers giving their all. And if you look hard enough, you'll see a strong, solid tree capable of withstanding the most powerful winds, with a heart to shelter the least of those among us.

Imagine if we began to see one another with "kingdom eyes," no longer categorizing or judging based on a lack of this or a surplus of that. Imagine if we saw one another, all in an instant, as full expressions of God's creation. "So if anyone is in Christ," says Paul, "there is a new creation." White belts. Black belts. Same thing. Seeds. Trees. Equal value. You. Me. Beloved and loving. "See, everything has become new!"

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Pine Bluff and St. Mary's Monticello | June 13, 2021
Proper 6, Year B
audio

References

Laird, M. S. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

You Are Kin to Me

There is a priest in this diocese who was once a regular on the supply circuit, and I could always count on him to get along well with the members of whatever congregation he was serving. Whenever I would call him up and ask him to preside at Sunday services in Stuttgart, Helena, Marianna, or any number of congregations across the diocese, his response was almost always something like, "Sure! I'd love to. It'll be good to see them. You know, they're all my kin." And he wasn't lying. When I visit these congregations I will inevitably get pulled aside and asked how this particular priest is doing, because, "you know, he's my cousin." And when I ask about how, exactly, they're related, I'll get some drawn out--kind of fuzzy--explanation of the family tree. What I've learned, though, is that those specifics don't really matter. It's simply the fact that they're "kin" to one another that sets their relationship apart. Because of this kinship, they care for one another in a certain way, or more specifically, they have a responsibility to care for one another. And they live that responsibility out by asking me, a mutual acquaintance, how their kin is doing. It's also a way for them to connect with me. If I'm friends with their kin then that makes us kin too, in a way, right?

It's kind of like the "who-do-you-know" game we all play when we first meet someone. "Oh, you're from Conway? Well, you know I went to Hendrix. You did too? And you also lived in Hardin Hall? Did you ever have Dr. Farthing for Latin? Remember how he would always hold his glasses like this when he was trying to make a point?" You know how the conversation goes. And after a few minutes swapping stories, your "level of kinship" has increased. If you liked Dr. Farthing and I liked Dr. Farthing (maybe Latin not so much), then that says something about who we are, as people. And now, our responsibility to one another has increased by way of this proxy relationship. When I see you in the parking lot, I owe you a handshake or a fist bump, or at least a nod, because you mean something to me now. We're "kin," in a way.

A story about kinship is what we get in today's lesson from Mark. After Jesus characteristically spars with the scribes a bit, members of the gathered crowd tell Jesus that his mother, brothers, and sisters are looking for him. "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Jesus famously replies. "And looking at those who sat around him, he said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother." Thus, the true kindred of Jesus are not defined as such biologically, but rather spiritually. This was actually a pretty bold idea. The Bible is rife with genealogies. The foundation of the Jewish culture was largely build upon blood relationships. Families had ties to specific tribes in Israel, and loyalty and obedience to that lineage was essential to maintain social order.

This is actually one of the sayings of Jesus that has maintained its emotional impact through time. Hereditary connection is still important in our society today. Who we are kin to matters.

My dad is a genealogy buff and is always emailing newfound information about distant family ties. Last Christmas he gifted my two sisters and me Ancestry.com subscriptions accompanied by those saliva collection cotton swabs so you can sample your DNA and mail it off for evaluation. If you're lucky, the results might reveal a long lost relative or two. A couple of years ago he thought he had determined that we were a "Mayflower Family," that is, some of our ancestors arrived in America on the Mayflower in 1620. But after some more digging--and disappointment--he's not so sure anymore. Interesting? Yes. Relevant? I don't know. I do think that the excitement we tend to experience about possibly being part of a famous ancestral line does reveal something about human nature. Our mythology is practically based on the unassuming-commoner-discovers-royal-heritage trope. Think King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, or more recently, the young adult Percy Jackson novels. For that matter, even the authors of the gospels go out of their way to tie Jesus to King David, legitimizing his place of importance within the Jewish culture.

So, Jesus's seemingly dismissive words about his mother, brothers, and sisters unsettle us just as much as they did those in the crowd that day. But the key to understanding here involves turning the story around a bit so as to see it from another angle. Jesus isn't disowning his blood relatives at all, rather he is asking the crowd (he's asking us) to imagine that our blood relatives are one another--everyone here gathered in his name. Jesus is asking us to apply this same love, attention, and loyalty to those relationships as we would any that turn up after a DNA swab.

The implications of this perspective are truly mind-boggling, particularly in the context of today's divisive social climate. When a relative is in pain we respond. We attend to their needs. If we are at odds with a relative we try to reconcile, as difficult as it may be. Sometimes this means making an effort to change our own behavior. Failing to care for these relationships ultimately causes us pain--any psychologist will tell you as much. Now, extend that same sense of responsibility across racial, socio-economic, and political borders. If we actually did that, we'd have a changed world.

Jesus's words in today's gospel are so emotionally striking not because he is dismissive of family, but because he's asking us to expand our family, and that means redefining kinship as we know it. Like those parishioners in Marianna, Stuttgart, and Helena, I doubt that Jesus is all that interested in the specifics of family trees or what a search on Ancestry.com might turn up. It's enough simply to know that we are "kin."

I grew up in a Presbyterian church, and I'm reminded of a tradition our congregation had. After the pastor said the blessing at the end of the service, we would join hands across the isle with our nearest neighbor--blood relative or not--and sing the first verse of a hymn: "Blest be the tie that binds / Our hearts in Christian love; / The fellowship of kindred minds / Is like to that above."

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Nicholas', Maumelle | June 6, 2021
Proper 5, Year B
audio

Going Off the Map

Let me know if this sounds familiar. You're eight years old. It's a beautiful spring Sunday morning, but instead of running around outside like you know you ought to be, you were unjustly dragged to church. And now you're sitting in an uncomfortable pew that clearly wasn't built with children in mind. And as you slide down for the twelfth time, catching the stink-eye from the parent to your right, you grab the Bible out of the rack on the back of the pew in front of you. [Yes, I am aware of the fact that there are no Bibles in these pews--this particular memory takes place in a Methodist Church.] From prior experience you know that the Bible is mainly just a bunch of words in really, really small print, but there is one section that can manage to bring you back from the brink of boredom, at least for a bit, and that is the map section in the back. It's the closest thing you can get to a comic book in church, and you'll take it.

I'm willing to bet that a number of us got our first understanding of the geography of the Jewish and Christian traditions--and of the Middle East in general--from this tried and true method of Sunday morning self-preservation. There's the map that shows the Israelites' harrowing journey across the Red Sea onto the Sinai Peninsula, as well as the one tracing Paul's long trek to Rome. And then there is the close-up on the area around Jerusalem that labels all the places Jesus visited during his ministry: Bethlehem, Bethany, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River. These maps frame the very limited space where all the action in our early religious history took place--just about a million square miles, equivalent to a third of the size of the continental United States. And that is why today's passage from The Acts of the Apostles, about a spur-of-the-moment encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian is so striking.

Ethiopia is literally off the map. Even the most macro view of the Middle East and Mediterranean areas depicted in the backs of our Bibles cut off around the ancient city of Thebes in southern Egypt. Anything further up the Nile was unknown wilderness. According to the book of Isaiah it was a "land of whirring wings...people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide" (Isaiah 18:1-2). "Ethiopia's remoteness and invincibility were legendary" (Mays 998). Now, if that weren't enough to set this Ethiopian apart from the locals, the Book of Acts adds that this traveler was also a eunuch, placing him "off the map" culturally as well. Scholars debate the technical meaning of "eunuch" as it is used here, but generally it refers to a man who is unable father a child. A eunuch is considered to be physically deficient and was often given the duties of a slave. Bottom line--this Ethiopian eunuch did not belong.

At this point in time, Philip and his companions were fleeing Jerusalem due to the increasing persecution of Christians there, and they were spreading the gospel as they traveled. You might say that Philip, himself, was being pushed "off the map"--his crowd-inspiring sermons were threatening to the powers that be. In fact, Stephen, another apostle, was recently martyred in Jerusalem, demonstrating to the followers of the fledgling Jesus movement just how precarious their situation was. And so it is fitting that the two displaced travelers in today's passage encounter one another on a wilderness road. A scandalous message meets a scandalous man, mix in a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit, and the result is nothing short of miraculous.

I think it's interesting that the story we are given doesn't actually reveal the content of the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian. We just know that it leads to the Ethiopian's desire to be baptized on the spot. Whatever Philip said must have offered him something he had desperately been seeking. There are clues, though. When Philip found the Ethiopian, he was reading aloud a passage from Isaiah--one that describes a "suffering servant," whom Christians since have associated with Jesus. This servant is "despised and avoided by others...oppressed and tormented...[but ultimately given] a share with the great in return for exposing his life to death and being numbered with rebels..." (Isaiah 53). I wonder if this Ethiopian eunuch, both literally and figuratively "off the map," identified with the suffering servant? It couldn't have been an easy life to hold such a contemptible position in society, his condition marking him a slave. I wonder if he was "despised and avoided by others," or perhaps by himself? Did he feel "oppressed and tormented?"

And so, the curious Ethiopian says to Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" We're then told, simply, that Philip proclaims the good news about Jesus. This, of course, is the very message that made Stephen a martyr and Philip an exile. This is the very message that terrifies the selfish, the powerful, and the violent. This is the message that has the power to turn society on its head and unleash an entirely new kingdom here on earth. And, the message, as John so perfectly puts it, is this: God is love. And this love, as enfleshed by Jesus, is a light that outshines all of the darkness this world can muster. Love can overcome even death. And, "if we love one another, God lives in us."

You can imagine that to someone whose home is not even on the map, or to someone whose life is considered to be "less than" simply because of the color of their skin or because of the way their body works, this message might resonate. The good news of Jesus is a message that celebrates everyone's inherent worth. It does not discriminate. And for a society built on keeping people in their place, it's deeply threatening. But, with each baptism, and the commitments made to "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves," there is hope that those the world has exiled may come to know their extraordinary value in the eyes of God, and, in-turn--simply by being who they are--share the good news themselves. "Look, here is water," exclaimed the Ethiopian. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

The good news that once sparked a baptism on a wilderness road has continued its life-changing journey beyond borders. It can't be contained. And today, you and I have inherited Philip's charge to be its bearers, to bring hope to those who live "off the map."

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Grace Church, Pine Bluff | May 2, 2021
Easter 5, Year B
audio

References

Mays, James Luther, Joseph Blenkinsopp, and Society of Biblical Literature, eds. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

An In-Person Thing

Yoga has become an essential practice for my physical well-being. I realized several years ago, after a nagging back strain that if I didn't exercise my body's full range of motion, I'd lose it, and my office chair would begin to permanently dictate my posture. I would never claim to be an accomplished "yogi," and my Wednesday night classes are not necessarily a pretty sight to behold, but my back thanks me nonetheless.

Like so many things this past year, Wednesday yoga has had to move online. My classmates and I had to trade the studio for our bedrooms, living rooms, and dorm rooms. We had to aim our laptop cameras or iPhones and set the lighting--you know how it works. Then we would receive verbal instruction from our teacher. The family dog would occasionally join in to model a perfect "down dog" or "up dog" posture, no doubt taking cues from our instructor's two pugs.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm grateful. Zoom has been a lifeline; technology has kept us connected, and yet, yoga has just not been the same. And this was made painfully clear to me this past Wednesday when we were able to meet in person again. Back in the studio, the instructor was able to make "adjustments," that is, physically position our bodies into the appropriate postures, pushing us, ever so gently, a little bit farther than we are able to go on our own. You see, yoga is just an in-person thing. Bodies tend to respond to the presence of other bodies, whether you're being "adjusted" or simply in the proximity of another person who is bending and twisting in parallel with you. Being in-person is what we, as human beings, are made for. Being in-person is not only how we come to know others, it is how we come to know ourselves, and, according to Luke's account of Jesus' resurrection appearance, it is also how we come to know God.

In today's passage we encounter the disciples chatting away in amazement about a report that Jesus had appeared to two unsuspecting travelers on the road to Emmaus. He had walked and talked with these travelers but was only recognized by them when they shared a meal at the end of the day's journey. Luke tells us that just as the disciples were commiserating over this tale, "Jesus, himself, stood among them." What follows is probably the most concerted attempt in all the gospels to persuade the disciples and those, like us, who would later read Luke's gospel, that Jesus' resurrection was not merely a spiritual event. Jesus was resurrected in the flesh. The very same man that shared ministry with the disciples in Galilee now stood among them, in-person. "Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And if that weren't enough, Jesus then asks if they have anything to eat!

This distinction is an important one for a couple of reasons. Back when Luke's gospel was written, about 40 years after Jesus' crucifixion, there were a number of fledgling Christian groups vying for authority, and one popular notion--adopted from the Greeks--was that the resurrected Christ was spirit only, an immortal soul. Luke wanted to make it clear that Christianity was not simply an extension of Greek philosophy--far from it. God had done a new thing in resurrecting Jesus. God blessed humanity by becoming flesh and living among us and then destroyed the worldly powers of sin and death by dying and rising to new life again--not as mere spirit, mind you, but as "flesh and bones" just like us. This is precisely how we know God today. God is present in the very material of the bread and wine of communion which we consume and digest with our bodies. As Paul says, God is present in you and me, members of the body of Christ. God is present--and perhaps most recognizable--in the least of those among us, those who are suffering physically in mind and body, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the grieving, the lonely, and the lost. Jesus, indeed, stands among us.

It is wonderful to be in-person with you today--standing, kneeling, and praying in parallel. Kind of like yoga, church is just an in-person thing. It's how we come to know each other, ourselves, and God. At the same time, there are many members of the body of Christ still worshiping with us online, and given the unpredictability of this stubborn virus, those of us here could be back behind our screens again at some point. But, here's some good news.

In the resurrection appearance that Luke tells us about today, the disciples behave, well, like they always do: well-meaning, but mostly clueless. While doing ministry together, Jesus had told them over and over about his impending death and resurrection but they didn't get it. Instead they argued amongst themselves about who was the greatest, or how they could never deny knowing him if things got dicy. We know how that turned out. And here they are, moping around, not in church worshiping or out doing ministry. They're probably reminiscing about the good old days. And then, out of nowhere, Jesus stood among them. They didn't come to Jesus. Jesus became present to them. And, improbable as it might be, he was completely in-person.

My neighbor and I share a driveway. And not long after the pandemic began she and I were outside doing some spring yard work. And we fell into a conversation, talking across our driveway--socially distanced, of course--commiserating about missing church. It was a Sunday, in fact. She's also an Episcopalian. And then out of nowhere something falls from above and crashes down onto the driveway right between us. We both jump back and look up into the canopy of the big oak that shades the driveway. And we look back at each other, and my neighbor's is laughing. On the ground there is a broken loaf of bread. Now, this is not necessarily a bishop-approved practice, but it turns out that that morning while watching the online Eucharist broadcast from her church, my neighbor had set out her own bread intending for it to be consecrated as the priest said the Eucharistic prayer. After the service she took the leftover bread and set it outside for the birds. Well, as it so happens, a squirrel got to it first, ran it up the tree, and then out of nowhere, and under the most improbable of circumstances, Jesus stood among us. You can't make this stuff up.

Church is an in-person thing, that is, it has to do with our bodies. Whether we are here together, behind our screens, moping with friends, or having a socially-distanced conversation across our driveway, Jesus has an uncanny way of showing up, standing among us, and opening our hearts. As Jesus says to the disciples, "You are witnesses of these things." And, you know what? So are we. In turn, I think Jesus would have us be as present with one another as we can, in whatever creative form that takes--connecting, reaching out, encouraging, and loving. Being present, being "in-person" is not only how we come to know others, it is how we come to know ourselves, and it is also how we come to know God.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Pine Bluff | April 18, 2021
Easter 3, Year B
audio

New Eyes

What do video conferencing, bicycles, Netflix, and jigsaw puzzles have in common? That's right. They all became wildly popular during 2020. A recent survey of puzzle retailers found that sales went up over 300% when compared with 2019 figures. Those little boxes of dusty, carefully cut cardboard were flying off the shelves as cooped-up people were looking for something to do. And, I will admit that the Alexander household helped to grow that percentage. During any given week last year our dining room table would be littered with images--in various states of deconstruction--of everything from abstract landscapes to Star Wars battle scenes. My wife, Kate, got particularly good at piecing these images together. She used the classic method: assemble the edges first and then sort the rest by color and then after some time and focus an entirely new world begins to emerge, and the plain wood of the table gives way to a lush countryside or a Norman Rockwell masterpiece--suddenly the mundane becomes wondrous. That's the idea, at least, until our cat, Pete, sits on the puzzle and undoes the work, or our dog, Maeve, makes off with a few pieces which we find soggy and shapeless on the floor a few days later.

I bring up puzzles this Easter Day for a couple of reasons, the first being that our gospel lesson is from Mark, which is a literary puzzle of sorts. In order to gain a fuller understanding of the resurrection passage we just heard, we need to jump back a few chapters--grouping by color, as it were--and recall another story Mark tells, the story of the blind man at Bethsaida. During Jesus' travels throughout the Galilean countryside, he comes upon a blind man. Jesus famously spits on the man's eyes, lays hands on him, then asks, and I quote, "'Can you see anything?' And the man looked up and said, 'I can see people but they look like trees, walking.'" Jesus' lays hands on the man's eyes again and restores the man to full sight. Which brings me to the second reason I mention puzzles today. With Jesus' help, this man went from seeing nothing--a bare dining room table, if you will--to a distorted image, and finally to clear sight of the world around him. For this blind man in Bethsaida that day, the mundane became wondrous.

There is a particular Greek word in this passage that carries a lot of interpretive weight, and that is the word for "looked up," as in the sentence, "And the man looked up and said, 'I can see people but they look like trees, walking.'" That Greek word for "looked up" appears one other place in Mark's gospel, and--you guessed it--it's in the resurrection story we heard today: "And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, 'Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?' When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back."

Let's put the puzzle pieces together now. When the blind man at Bethsaida looked up, that is, when he began to look with the eyes of faith, the eyes that Jesus had given him, his life was forever changed. What was once unthinkable for him was now a possibility. He could see the beauty in the sunset and gaze into the night sky. He could look into the faces of those that had loved and cared for him. He could learn to read, or paint. An entirely new world of possibility and wonder had come alive.

Mark seems to want us to understand that the women at the tomb had also been transformed so as to see the world in a dramatically new way. "When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled back." When they looked up, that is, looked with eyes of faith, eyes that Jesus had given them, they discovered that the wondrous had happened. A heavy stone had moved itself. And much more than that, a dead man--whose unforgettable demise they had witnessed just two days before--had been raised.

This Easter Day we are reminded of our central charge as Christians. Like the man at Bethsaida and the women at the tomb, we have been given new eyes through which see this world. You might call them "resurrection eyes." And Jesus means for us to use them. I don't know about you, but it seems that having a set of those could help these days. There are a lot of stones out there that people can't seem to move. Before they looked up, the women at the tomb grumbled and worried about the stone's weight. For us, the stone could be any number of things: personal grief we are having trouble moving past, deep weariness from worry about pandemics or politics, or even fear in this community of St. Mary's about how to manage a return to church after so long away. These are heavy stones. And yet, Easter reminds us that not only can these stones be moved, but that they have been moved.

Maybe that's why puzzles were so popular during 2020. Whether they knew it or not, people longed to see with the hopeful power of resurrection eyes. If a bare, wooden dining room table could be transformed into a Swiss alpine meadow, what more could God do with a bare wooden cross?

Look up. See with new eyes. See the stone rolled away. Jesus, resurrected, has gone ahead of you and is waiting for you to follow. Indeed, anything is possible.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Mary's, Monticello | April 4, 2021
Easter Day, Year B
audio

Jesus and Dirt

Yesterday marked the beginning of spring. And for those of us here in Arkansas, having experienced that bizarre blizzard a few weeks ago, the transition has been fast and furious. The change from winter to spring is particularly dramatic anyway--it's a full-body experience. Not only do we see the trees burst into color almost overnight, and feel the stick of humidity begin to thicken the air, some of us can also notice spring by the unmistakable effect it has on our sinuses. Another curious sign that spring has sprung, at least for my family this year, has been the proliferation of earthworms in our driveway. Immediately following the storms we had this week there were literally hundreds of worms wriggling across the rain-soaked concrete. It was a surreal sight, and, unfortunately for the worms, a dangerous position to be in. My kids and I all cringed when we backed out the car.

Worms are a sign of spring, of course, because they are attracted to the changes taking place in the soil during this time. In fact, they're a part of the changes. Those of you whose livelihoods depend on the land out here in the Delta are all too familiar with this, I'm sure. The dead leaf and grass particles that have decayed over the winter are a feast for these worms, and, in turn, they convert this yard waste into nutrients, giving seedlings of all sorts the nudge they need to burst from the ground and make us sneeze. In today's gospel, Jesus has something to say about this process of transformation. But before we get to the interesting relationship between Christianity and dirt, why don't we backup a bit--just a couple of verses before today's passage--so we can set the scene.

At this point in John, Jesus has just made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the Pharisees are dismayed by all of the attention Jesus is garnering--the crowds cheering, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord." In verse 19 the Pharisees remark to one another, "You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him." This is the lead-in to where we pick up with the Greeks who "wish to see Jesus." The Greeks are not Jews. They are gentiles, and in this narrative they represent the "world" that the Pharisees speak of. The Greeks first approach Philip with their request to see Jesus, the same disciple who once bid Nathanael to "come and see." It's easy to draw the parallel. Jesus' first disciples came from Jesus' own culture--from the inside--and now a new group of potential disciples from the world beyond are interested. Jesus' response is nothing less than a foundational, and beautiful, piece of Christian theology. And he begins with an analogy about dirt.

"Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Jesus makes use of this very familiar, natural process to describe how his local ministry will blossom into a global movement. Jesus, the first century man, converted the twelve, and energized the crowds, but, to reach the Greeks and beyond, Jesus' ministry would need to take on a new form. Because of his love for us, he would face even death--the worst the Romans and religious elite could throw at him--and emerge on the other side, resurrected, to bear fruit in the hearts of those who believed in him--those who put their trust in him--a new body of Christ. "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth," says Jesus, "will draw all people to myself."

In the history of Christian thought, this process that John describes is atonement theology, which gets at trying to answer the sticky question of why Jesus had to die the way he did. Always a question that we stumble upon this liturgical season. If you take the word "atonement" and break it down into syllables a more nuanced meaning emerges: Atonement. At-one-ment. Jesus death on the cross and ensuing resurrection is a process of reconnection--of unification--between God and humanity. Indeed, the Book of Common prayer describes the mission of the church, this resurrected body of Christ made up of you and me and all others who believe, is to "restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ." At-one-ment. Atonement. Death for one grain of wheat leads to fields and fields of plenty.

I don't know about you, but for me this year, the concept of transformation, of death and resurrection seems particularly relevant. We've now endured a year of the COVID pandemic and witnessed our own lives, and those of our friends, turned upside down and inside out. A year ago we were forced away from one another into a period of isolation. For many it has been a dark and lonely time, even suffocating, as if we were buried under the dirt. But today, as the numbers of active cases, hospitalizations, and deaths decrease, and available vaccines proliferate, a new hope is on the rise. And those trees, bursting forth outside, could well be physical representations of what is going on in our hearts.

The key to this agrarian analogy, though, is to recognize that something important happens in the dirt, right? Although the darkness may be difficult to endure, it's not wasted time. Soil is a very active place. As the worms sift through the detritus, something new and rich is created in the process. Jesus' death on the cross is not something we just skip over to get to the resurrection. There is no Easter without Good Friday. This body of Christ, our Christian community, exists because Jesus died, because a grain of wheat fell to the earth. As we have been in the dirt this past year, what changes have taken place within us? What have we been forced to let go of, and what form will we take when we begin to rise from the earth? How will we bear fruit, and, in fact, be more than we were a year ago?

The other day my wife, Kate, texted me a cartoon she had come across on social media, and said, "there may be a sermon in this." It was simple. Three images of a flower pot. In the first image a frightened looking seed was being placed into the dirt. In the second image the seed is in the depths of despair, with a thought bubble above his little seed head that reads, "Everything is over." In the third image a fresh, green seedling has emerged from the pot, and the seed, now smiling, has become a well-rooted foundation. The caption on the cartoon reads, "Sometimes, when you're in a dark place, you think you have been buried, but you have actually been planted."

"Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." Happy spring.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. John's, Helena | March 21, 2021
Lent 5, Year B
audio

Peace in the Plumbing Isle

Probably like many of you, my mettle as a homeowner was put to the test this past week. Although the snow was beautiful, and a welcome break from the monotony of our COVID quarantine life, there is often an unfortunate, and literal, dark dimension to the glistening white wonderland outside. I am talking, of course, about basements, crawl spaces, boiler rooms, and attics--all of the uncomfortably tight, dangerously dank places that we don’t typically frequent. They all of a sudden draw a great deal of our attention when the temperatures drop into the teens and the snow begins to fall. We wonder about our home’s most vulnerable places, where the pipes are most exposed to the elements, where they are most likely to freeze and, God forbid, burst, wreaking all kinds of expensive havoc and likely knocking a couple of years off of our lives as a consequence of the added stress.

So, I got the opportunity to don my handyman alter ego a few times, and even dig out my favorite Carhart coveralls and ExtraTuff boots to venture into some of these domestic dungeons. It turns out that old churches, Like my wife’s church in Little Rock—Christ Church—are just as susceptible to the strain of cold weather as old homes are. I now know much more about rooftop water coolers and basement boilers than I ever thought I would. And I’m also forever grateful for the calm demeanor of the wizened HVAC pro who came out and educated me. Wielding his trusty blowtorch, thawing and soldering, he bravely exposed those leaky pipes for what they were. Instead of panic inducing, paralyzing nightmares, they were simply problems to be solved. I was humbled, and encouraged, by his willingness to work in the dirty darkness, headlamp ablaze, shining light—and hope—into a troubling situation.

The liturgical season of Lent, if you will, is not unlike a great snowstorm. The prayers we say together and the liturgies we celebrate draw us into those veiled places in our lives, which we tend to keep veiled for a reason. Lent encourages self-examination, repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial. Kind of like facing the prospect of a pipe breaking in our basement when the mercury drops, moving into Lent can be somewhat wince-inducing. Like a crawlspace, though, our interior spiritual life is foundational. And a healthy spiritual life is only healthy insomuch as we are honest about what’s going on in there. Have we been paying attention to God’s movement in our lives, God’s prompts for us to make particular choices, to persevere or pause on the paths that we walk. Are our piers—our prayer life—solid, or are they in need of repointing? Where has our spiritual insulation frayed, or decayed, leaving us vulnerable when we encounter the creeping cold of temptation? Lent invites us to shine a light into that crawlspace.

In today’s passage from Mark, the disciple Peter—and I love Peter, by the way. He’s just so perfectly human—Peter gets thrown off by Jesus’ stark words about suffering and rejection. No, Jesus is not going to gallop into Jerusalem, guns a blazing and put down the Roman occupation. Jesus’ uprising, so to speak, is of a different sort altogether. So, Jesus asks Peter—he invites Peter—to examine himself. Is this “Jesus movement” about Peter and his desires, or is it about God’s desires for Peter? The latter means less control, it means that change might be involved, it means living life in a way that doesn’t set personal benefit as a priority, it means taking up the cross, bearing the burdens of others, it means believing, that is, putting our trust in God’s way. And sometimes it takes a snowstorm to push us to do the necessary preparation or repair to more clearly see, value, and ultimately move along that holy path.

Now, Peter doesn’t immediately get it—again, I love this guy—but it is important to note that Jesus’ words here are not just meant for Peter. Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples,” says the Gospel. Jesus was speaking to everyone in earshot. This was not privileged wisdom only for the initiated, this was food for the masses. Jesus didn’t say “take up your cross alone in your room.” No, Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me,” implying that this Christian journey is one that we take together. We are not meant to patch up our leaky pipes or shore up our foundations alone. No, you go find your neighbor with the ShopVac or the HVAC pro with the blowtorch and you brave those dark places together.

You know, last week I did get out to Home Depot on a quest to find a pipe fitting, and the plumbing isle was a sight to see. It was packed, and the shelves resembled the potato chip and bread isles at Kroger—you know what I’m talking about. There had been a run on fittings. There were pros and homeowners alike sifting through what was left. The 3/4” was mixed up with the 1/2,” only the expensive 300’ rolls of pex pipe were left, it was chaos I tell you. Now, you might expect a crowd-crushing, Black Friday-type situation here, and yet that was not at all what I experienced. Despite the stress everyone was under and the problem with the limited stock, the Home Depot plumbing isle was a sanctuary of camaraderie and mutual support. People were helping others find parts, plumbing tips were humbly sought and freely given. Each of us knew, by the dirt and mud visible on our clothing, that we had all been in crawlspaces that day, and that we were preparing to go back. And so, in that unlikeliest of places, we all relaxed for a moment, finding some measure of peace in the knowledge that we weren’t doing this difficult but vital work alone.

Lent is like a snowstorm in Arkansas, an event that comes around seasonally yet always seems to catch us off guard. You have been invited to take a closer look at your spiritual lives, to realign your desires with God’s. It’s not easy work and you may get dirty. But as followers of Jesus, we do it together, every step moving us closer to knowing God’s profound promise of peace.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Andrew's, Mountain Home | February 28, 2021
Lent 2, Year B

What is God up to?

For parents out there, or, even for owners of beloved pets, today's passage from Luke's gospel is liable to stir some emotion. Listening to the story of Mary and Joseph's frantic search for their lost boy is enough to make anyone's heart rate jump and palms begin sweat. We all have a story or two like this, the painful details of which are seared on our minds. The "It's a Small World" tune from the Disneyland ride will forever be the unsettling soundtrack for my memory of temporarily losing a child.

We had just gotten off the Small World ride and were making our way to our next adventure at "the happiest place on earth," when Kate and I realized our six-year-old son was no longer by our side. It was like a punch in the gut. One minute we were relaxed, enjoying churro-scented Disney magic, and the next our bodies flooded with cortisol, the stress hormone, and we were primed to jump into an icy river, or lift a car--whatever it takes to protect our child. The entire experience lasted no more than five minutes, thank God, though it felt like an eternity. Nate's aunt, who was with us, found him aimlessly wandering towards the Matterhorn. He didn't seem panicked at all, she said, just transfixed by all the sights. After a prolonged hug at our reunion, Mary's words could have been our own: "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."

I think we often hear today's passage from Luke as the culmination of Jesus's coming-of-age story. Jesus is born, named, presented at the temple, and takes his place among family and friends for traditional annual trips to Jerusalem for Passover. The Gospel describes him as having "become strong, [and] filled with wisdom." He is growing up to be a faithful, observant Jew. It is a story about Jesus's coming-of-age, but it is also a story about his parent's reaction to these changes.

You can imagine Mary and Joseph relaxing a bit after the holy hubbub surrounding Jesus's birth, enjoying some normalcy for once. They're so relaxed, in fact, that on their trip home from the Passover event in Jerusalem they don't even notice Jesus is missing until a day of travel has passed. Their carefree evening abruptly ends and they rush back to Jerusalem and spend three, no doubt, gut wrenching days searching for him.

The thing about cortisol, the stress hormone I mentioned earlier--that was surely coursing through Mary and Joseph's bodies--is that it is not really compatible with our higher brain function, where we do sensible things like calmly consider options in a crisis. It's an ancient hormone released from the primitive part of our brain that elicits a "fight or flight" reaction. This reaction can protect us when we are in danger. It's quite useful. But, also lurking in that primitive part of the brain are our most basic emotions, including anger and aggression. Cortisol puts us "on edge." Many different events can trigger this hormone release, and it's often a matter of degree. Temporarily misplacing a child will certainly do it, but so can spending multiple days in a stressful work environment, or feeling the persistent worry of being out of work altogether. Overlay that with the political polarization our country is experiencing, and--oh yeah--a global pandemic, and we are all practically swimming in cortisol.

Another trying event that may hit a little closer home is saying goodbye to a priest who has been with you for thirty years. Someone who has seen you at your best, and maybe not at your best but stood by you all the same. Someone who preached the homily at your wedding, and also at the funeral of a parent. Someone who taught you what it means to be a Christian, to love, to hope, and to forgive. This person leaves and suddenly you find yourself short on patience and a little quicker to anger. Once again, Mary's refrain seems apt: "Child, why have you treated us like this?"

One of the central themes in the Gospels that I think we see exemplified in today's passage from Luke is conversion, or, in Greek, metanoia. It's a kind of change, or a turning from one way of being, or one perspective, to another. Positive spiritual growth is implied in the process of conversion (Sheldrake 214). We witness this conversation take place for Mary after she finds Jesus in the temple--his father's house, about his father's business--conversing with the teachers. Once her frustration subsides she is able to see that Jesus was not simply being irresponsible or disobedient. There was more to the story. Emmanuel, the name we know Jesus by in the Christmas narrative, means "God with us." At the heart of Mary's conversion at the temple that day was the difficult realization that "God with us" doesn't necessary mean we always know what God is up to, and yet God is with us all the same.

There is nothing easy about a clergy transition. Our bodies naturally draw upon that "fight or flight" stress hormone and we can thrash about and bump into one another in counterproductive ways as we deal with the loss. As Christians, though, we believe the promise of the Christmas story--that God is with us. The conversion that Mary experienced is ours to experience as well: "God with us" doesn't necessary mean we always know what God is up to. Practically speaking, this means letting go of having all the answers. It means being forgiving of one another's expressions of fear, pain, or frustration. It means intentionally seeking out God's hand in the details of our lives, even if God's presence may sometimes seem obscure.

To put it succinctly, the conversion here is to become more spiritually generous. That's a term I like to use particularly in times of clergy transition, but also in stressful situations in general. It is an attitude that allows possibility and creativity into our lives. It's an attitude that enables us to more easily witness God at work. That means turning from a perspective of fear and scarcity to openness and observation. It means giving our friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt. God is with us. I believe it. Now, together, let's go figure out what Jesus is up to. Surely he is about his father's business.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity, Van Buren | January 3, 2021
Second Sunday After Christmas

audio

References

Sheldrake, Philip. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville: WJK = Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.

Christmas has Come Indeed

Through the busyness of the the past couple of weeks, I have stolen away a few minutes here and there to do some reading for an online class that I am taking. When I first picked up the assigned book, entitled Philosophy in the Flesh, I will admit that I was daunted. It is a 600-page "doorstop" by a UC Berkeley linguistics professor--the very definition of heavy reading. But, despite my attempts to skim for the salient points so I could quickly produce a reflection paper for the class, I found myself drawn into the text, absorbed by the author's powerful--some say groundbreaking--ideas. And as I considered this morning's passage from John's gospel, I couldn't help but view it through the lens of Philosophy in the Flesh. There is something here worth sharing.

So, here it is. Six hundred pages boiled down into just a couple of sentences. Are you ready? Traditional Western Philosophy holds that reality, or truth, is external from us. And we use our reasoning skills, the essence of our humanity, to discover these truths. So, for example, according to Western philosophical thought, time, morality, or love are realities that exist external from us, and we are capable of understanding these things by simply thinking about them. This book, on the other hand, proposes that we reason with our physical bodies rather than just our intellect. So, coming to understand love requires that we experience it in a physical way with our primary senses. We need to see, taste, smell, hear, and touch love. We can't just think about it to "get it." The author, George Lakoff, is a linguist, and much of his rationale for this proposal comes from how humans make use of metaphor to understand such concepts.

Consider how we talk about love. We reference the physical world to describe it all all the time. One of our primary metaphors is that "love is a journey." Consider these expressions:

Look how far we've come. It's been a long, bumpy road. We can't turn back now. We're heading in different directions. We're spinning our wheels. The marriage is out of gas. We're trying to keep the relationship afloat. Our relationship is off track. We're driving in the fast lane on the freeway of love (Lakoff 65-66).

In these common expressions we communicate the idea of love by relating it to something we can experience physically. We know what driving down a bumpy road feels like. We know, or we can imagine, how terrifying it might be to be aboard a sinking ship. We know that speeding in the fast lane is fun but a little risky. It is virtually impossible to describe something as complex as love without using metaphors such as these. I even snuck in a metaphor or two at the beginning of this sermon when I talked about being "drawn into" the text of this book. Physically being drawn into something, like a moth is drawn to a flame is what it feels like to read a good book. Or how about "heavy reading" vs. "light reading?" Heavy reading, like a heavy object, weighs us down and makes us tired. Light reading, on the other hand, is something we can "pick up" easily. How would we describe reading without the use of metaphor?

If you are still with me, I think you can see Lakoff's point ("seeing is knowing" is another primary metaphor, by the way). Human bodily experience is the means by which we understand reality. We are lost without our bodies.

In the prologue to John's gospel, which we heard this morning, we are told that "the Word became flesh and lived among us." Now, knowing what we know about just how fundamental physical, bodily experience is to us humans, the incarnation takes on new meaning. It's not just nice that God came to us in the form of Jesus, it's actually the way that we know God. Abstract conceptualization is not enough for us. We need a God we can touch, smell,
hear, see, and, yes, taste--what do you think the Eucharist is all about?

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was laid in a manger? As Luke tells it, there was no room in the inn, so Mary and Joseph were presumably given access to a nearby barn or stable, which is where you would find a manger, a feeding trough for animals. In French, manger, or manger is the verb that means "to eat." There are at least two layers of meaning to this story. On the one hand, the baby was literally placed in a manger out of necessity. On the other, the manger is a metaphor meant to help us understand how we are to come to know God with our bodies. God is our primary source of nourishment.

So, what in the world does this mean for us today, this Christmas season? The COVID pandemic has been challenging for everyone. That's an understatement, I know. But I think it has been particularly perplexing for Christians because it confronts our primary metaphor. As members of the Body of Christ, we know God by physically being in one another's presence, by reaching out and touching one another. And yet, that is the very action that spreads the virus. So, understandably, we get angry about the rules that keep us apart, and we lash out. But at the root of that anger is sadness and grief. We've lost something familiar and it hurts.

And yet, lest we forget, in the midst of our socially distant Christmas, that this primary metaphor is not our only metaphor. The author of the Gospel of John knew this. At Christmas the Word becomes flesh, yes, but the light begins to shine in the darkness as well. December 21 was the winter solstice, marking the time when the days begin to grow longer. In fact, today we will have 18 more seconds of light than we did yesterday, and tomorrow we'll add 21 seconds to that. I would just like to see the COVID virus try to mess with that one! Even if our daily cases increase, the light will literally continue to overcome the darkness in this world.

So, I ask you today to shift your metaphor. No, we can't be physically present with one another. We are not celebrating the Eucharist. We will again--I'm not worried about that. But in the mean time, don't forget to look out your window and soak up the light. And, in turn, in whatever creative way you can, reflect that light, that hope, that love, to your family, your friends, and your neighbors. Let them know that despite the virus's best efforts, Christmas has come indeed.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
Trinity and Grace Churches, Pine Bluff | December 27, 2020
First Sunday After Christmas

audio

References

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Nachdr. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2010.

We Belong to God

The mood has become uneasy for the disciples and the crowd that has gathered around Jesus. Imagine with me, for a minute, being part of that crowd. You have heard about this man who talks a good game. He has a knack for weaving together challenging, yet somehow brilliant stories about withering fig trees, wicked tenants, and grace-filled banquets. He has even reportedly given sight to the blind. And now, rumor has it that he can match wits with with the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees, besting them in their challenges to his knowledge of Scripture and his spiritual authority. You like that. Despite your attempt to hold on to your skepticism, Jesus has captured your interest, and maybe even a bit of your heart. He just might be the one to take it all the way, you think. He might be the catalyst we need to begin a revolution to overthrow the greedy and brutal Romans once and for all. But now, you're not so sure.

Jesus's words today are unsettling--more introspective than inspirational. He has begun to talk about the "end of the age," and the destruction of the sacred Temple in Jerusalem. And his predictions don't end well, at least not the way you had hoped they might. You're starting to get the sense that Jesus wants something different--something more--from you than your righteous anger and your pitchfork. He seems to be appealing to more than your emotion, or even your intellect. He is reaching deeper. He's interested your relationship with God--your spirituality, and your behavior among others. You're not sure you like that. Looking inward is never easy. You want to turn away, to go seek out another prophet, one whose priorities fit with your own and not the other way around. But you don't. You stay and you listen. Your gut tells you you're in the right place.

Ok, you can stop imagining now. Step away from that ancient crowd and rejoin our gathering today, but hold on to that unsettled feeling. Retain that sense of dis-ease for a minute, that uncomfortable reminder that Jesus's agenda is not necessarily our own. He guides us down a path towards a "peace that passes all understanding," yes, and yet along that path we continually stumble--upon ourselves much of the time--and are invited to gaze inward and reorder our passions before continuing the trek. And that, I propose, is what today's passage from Matthew is about. Take a moment to consider what has your attention today. There are a wide variety of causes out there clamoring for your allegiance. Do they have your attention, or does God? In the words of the Gospel, "wake up."

The parable of the ten bridesmaids is known as an apocalyptic text, one in which Jesus warns about the coming end of days. On the one hand you have the bridesmaids who are prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom, having filled their lamps with oil, and then there are those who have not, only to find themselves scrambling at the last minute and ultimately shut out of the heavenly wedding banquet when the time comes. Taken face value, this text has long stricken fear in the hearts of discerning Christians. Words like "rapture" come to mind, as well as phrases like "weeping and gnashing of teeth." You can't deny there is an urgency in this story. Jesus is serious here. There are indeed consequences for those who do not heed his warning to "keep awake." But what does it mean, exactly, to "keep awake?"

There is a long history in the Christian philosophical tradition that encourages "attentiveness." Early desert monks like Antony of Egypt and Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius were constantly harping on the benefits of something called prosoche [pro-sosh] which means, in the words of Pierre Hadot, "attention to oneself and vigilance at every instant ... A person who is 'awake' is always perfectly conscious not only of what he does but to what he is. In other words, he is aware of his place in the universe and his relationship to God" (Hadot 130). So, in the Gospel, when Jesus warns us to "keep awake," he is asking that we not simply remain aware of our physical surroundings but also be aware of to whom it is we belong. And, as Christians, if we belong to God that naturally affects how we see and interact with the world around us. If we belong to God our priority shifts from "getting our way," to discovering the presence of Christ in our neighbor, regardless of what our neighbor looks like, how much money they have, what side of the street they live on, or who they voted for. Like the five bridesmaids who were awake and looking for God at all times and in all places, we can expect to find that peace along Jesus' path. But, if we insist on distancing ourselves from one another and seeking out reasons to devalue our neighbor, we can expect to find frustration and pain, the only fruits this worldly game produces.

Let's jump back into the Gospel again and imagine ourselves among the crowd listening to Jesus. Remember that unsettled feeling Jesus is casting, encouraging his listeners to look inward and evaluate their priorities, and the high stakes involved. I suspect that "unsettled" is not such a difficult feeling to imagine given recent national events. Maybe our candidate didn't win, and we are left to wonder what this means for our nation's future. Or, maybe our candidate did win, but we're not sure what to make of the razor thin margins. The Gospel, however, reminds us to keep awake, to remember to whom it is we belong, and it's certainly not either of those candidates. We belong to God.

I think feeling unsettled is right, but not because of the politics. Rather, because Jesus is reminding us that his agenda is not our own. He is trying to pull us away from the zero-sum worldly game and back onto his path towards peace. We are unsettled because we don't want to let go of the sense of control we think we have, or the worldly outcomes we think we deserve. We want what we want. But if we belong to God, the priorities are crystal clear: love your neighbor, regardless of what they look like, how much money they have, what side of the street they live on, or who they voted for. And this, my friends, is what will change the world.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. John's, Helena | November 8, 2020
Proper 27, Year A

References

Hadot, Pierre, and Arnold I. Davidson. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

Signs of Faithfulness

I am struck, today, by the passage from the Hebrew Bible. Last week the lectionary recalled for us the story of Moses and the burning bush, when he was called out by God to lead the Exodus from Egypt—to help enact God’s desire to free the Hebrew people from slavery and bondage. Fast forward nine chapters and nine horrible plagues, and we find ourselves at the night of the first passover.

You can imagine the scene in each household—just how strung out everyone is, Egyptian and Hebrew alike. I can’t imagine that any of them has ever witnessed such powerful and bizarre supernatural forces: frogs, gnats, flies, dead livestock, storms, disease, even the Nile River turning to blood. Emotionally and physically exhausted, and no-doubt beginning to take their fear, grief, and frustration out on one another, Moses tells them that there is a final plague to come—the worst of them all. During the night, God will sweep over the land of Egypt, visiting each household to take the life of every firstborn. To avoid this fate, however, the Hebrews were to undertake a particular set of actions, including smearing the posts and lintel of their doors with the blood of a lamb they were to have ritually prepared for dinner. God would see this blood on the doorposts as a sign of faithfulness, of dedication, of appreciation of God’s promise of freedom, and pass over the household. The consequences of this final plague proved too much for Pharaoh, and the Hebrew people were sent on their way to freedom.

I know there is a lot to unpack here, but let’s just focus on this idea of faithfulness today. If you’re like me, you probably drew some parallels between the exhaustion of the characters in this story to your own exhaustion in the midst of our modern plagues. As “virtual school” has begun in the Alexander household, I can’t help but feel a little bit strung out myself. There have been a few moments I’m not proud of. I know my kids are feeling it too, and certainly so are their teachers. I’ve heard the exasperation in their voices over Zoom calls as they try to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. You get to a point where you just can’t make out the silver lining anymore, you know? It’s just plain hard. You get tired of “working on your attitude,” and “taking deep breaths” just don’t quite cut it. So, what then is left? How about faithfulness?

Now, before you dismiss it and say, “oh, I’ve tried to be faithful, but I just can’t get past the idea of a God that would allow all this to happen in the first place,” let’s take a minute to understand the concept of faithfulness a little more. Having faith is not the same as “working on your attitude,” “taking deep breaths, ” or having your theological conundrums solved. Having faith is not a self-help strategy that aims to improve your mood. Rather, faith “involves a decision to trust rather than a logic that verifies” (Sheldrake 297). Again, faith “involves a decision to trust rather than a logic that verifies.” To be logical you have to have your wits about you. It’s hard to be logical when you’re yelling at your kids for not doing their homework, or when you’re just shy of throwing your iPad across the room for not letting you open a document…again. Do you think that the Hebrew people, after feeling the crippling effects of nine plagues, reasoned that it still made sound logical sense to believe Moses’s stories and this promise of freedom that seemed to never come? No, they were just doing their best to get out of bed in the morning. So, even if they didn’t have the mental space to “logic” their way out of this situation, they could still make a decision…they could choose to trust in the goodness of God, or they could choose to give up.

And here’s the key. For the Hebrews, the decision to trust—or faithfulness—was lived out in the form of concrete action. As Moses instructed them, they painted blood on their doorposts, they prepared a meal in a particular way, and they ate together as families. There was probably some yelling across the dinner table as they took out the day’s frustrations on one another, but through these ritual actions they demonstrated their hope for the fulfillment of God’s promise, and their love for one another.

Theologian Michael Paul Gallagher writes that faith is “more a drama of companionship and vision than a theory, more of an event than a philosophy. It is a lived adventure…” (Sheldrake 298). Living faithfully during this challenging time in our lives has less to do with logic, rationalization, or mood, and more to do with concrete action. We demonstrate our trust in God and love for one another by praying together (even if it is through Zoom), or by sharing a meal together (even it is by delivering homemade cookies to your neighbor while wearing a mask), or by virtually showing up for school, (even if you know its not going to be the educational experience you had hoped for). Doing these things are signs of faithfulness, and God recognizes them when God passes over.

How do you paint your doorposts today? How is your faithfulness less about mood and more about action? And how do you demonstrate this faithfulness to a world that desperately needs to see it? For, if the stories in Exodus are to be believed, it is faithfulness that will lead us to the parting waters and reveal a clear path ahead.

The Rev. Canon Jason Alexander
St. Nicholas’, Maumelle | September 6, 2020
Proper 18, Year A

audio

References

Sheldrake, Philip. The New Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. Louisville: WJK = Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.