Monday, December 23, 2013

The Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told

Here again, my friends, is the greatest Christmas story ever told by a great story teller, Al Martinez, formerly of the Oakland Tribune, Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily News. Al is known as the "Bard of LA" and has won three Pulitzer prizes since he began writing columns in 1952. He wrote his last column on March 30 of this year, dropped by a newspaper publisher for the third, and probably last time. He had this to say in his last column:
"I think part of it is that I don't write local stuff but reach out for a broader view in a style of writing that just isn't "journalistic" enough. Good writing, as one L.A. Times publisher said when the Otis Chandler era came to an end, isn't a requirement for newspapers anymore. My writing is just too ornate, too stylistic, too gothic and too soft for those who own newspapers. And as they sit in lofty judgment on what the public wants, the product that is a result of their judgment drops deeper into the abyss."
I run this story every year in Fiat Lux, and it brings a tear to my eye every time.  So here it is, the Greatest Christmas Story Ever Told:

+ + +

A Christmas Story
By Al Martinez

IT happened one Christmas Eve a long time ago in a place called Oakland on a newspaper called the Tribune with a city editor named Alfred P. Reck.

I was working swing shift on general assignment, writing the story of a boy who was dying of leukemia and whose greatest wish was for fresh peaches.

It was a story which, in the tradition of 1950s journalism, would be milked for every sob we could squeeze from it, because everyone loved a good cry on Christmas.

We knew how to play a tear-jerker in those days, and I was full of the kinds of passions that could make a sailor weep.

I remember it was about 11 o'clock at night and pouring rain outside when I began putting the piece together for the next day's editions.

Deadline was an hour away, but an hour is a lifetime when you're young and fast and never get tired.

Then the telephone rang.

It was Al Reck calling, as he always did at night, and he'd had a few under his belt.

Reck was a drinking man. With diabetes and epilepsy, hard liquor was about the last thing he ought to be messing with, but you didn't tell Al what he ought to or ought not to do.

He was essentially a gentle man who rarely raised his voice, but you knew he was the city editor, and in those days the city editor was the law and the word in the newsroom.

But there was more than fear and tradition at work for Al.

We respected him immensely, not only for his abilities as a newsman, but for his humanity. Al was sensitive both to our needs and the needs of those whose names and faces appeared in the pages of the Oakland Tribune.

"What's up?" he asked me that Christmas Eve in a voice as soft and slurred as a summer breeze.

He already knew what was up because, during 25 years on the city desk, Reck somehow always knew what was up, but he wanted to hear it from the man handling the story.

I told him about the kid dying of leukemia and about the peaches and about how there simply were no fresh peaches, but it still made a good piece. We had art and a hole waiting on page one.

Al listened for a moment and then said, "How long's he got?"

"Not long," I said. "His doctor says maybe a day or two."

There was a long silence and then Al said, "Get the kid his peaches."

"I've called all over," I said. "None of the produce places in the Bay Area have fresh peaches. They're just plain out of season. It's winter."

"Not everywhere. Call Australia."

"Al," I began to argue, "it's after 11 and I have no idea . . .”

"Call Australia," he said, and then hung up.

If Al said call Australia, I would call Australia.

I don't quite remember whom I telephoned, newspapers maybe and agricultural associations, but I ended up finding fresh peaches and an airline that would fly them to the Bay Area before the end of Christmas Day.

There was only one problem. Customs wouldn't clear them. They were an agricultural product and would be hung up at San Francisco International at least for a day, and possibly forever.

Reck called again. He listened to the problem and told me to telephone the secretary of agriculture and have him clear the peaches when they arrived.

"It's close to midnight," I argued. "His office is closed."

"Take this number down," Reck said. "It's his home. Tell him I told you to call."

It was axiomatic among the admirers of Al Reck that he knew everyone and everyone knew him, from cops on the street to government leaders in their Georgetown estates. No one knew how Al knew them or why, but he did.

I made the call. The secretary said he'd have the peaches cleared when they arrived and give Al Reck his best.

"All right," Reck said on his third and final call to me, "now arrange for one of our photographers to meet the plane and take the peaches over to the boy's house."

He had been drinking steadily throughout the evening and the slurring had become almost impossible to understand.

By then it was a few minutes past midnight, and just a heartbeat and a half to the final deadline.

"Al," I said, "if I don't start writing this now I'll never get the story in the paper."

I won't forget this moment.

"I didn't say get the story," Reck replied gently. "I said get the kid his peaches."

If there is a flash point in our lives to which we can refer later, moments that shape our attitudes and affect our futures, that was mine.

Alfred Pierce Reck had defined for me the importance of what we do, lifting it beyond newsprint and deadline to a level of humanity that transcends job. He understood not only what we did but what we were supposed to do.

I didn't say get the story. I said get the kid his peaches.

The boy got his peaches and the story made the home edition, and I received a lesson in journalism more important than any I've learned since.

I wanted you to know that this Christmas season.

Al Martinez is a former reporter and columnist for The Oakland Tribune, from 1955 to 1971, The Richmond (Calif.) Independent and Los Angeles Times to now. Born in Oakland, he also has written several novels, for television and the movies. This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 25, 1986.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Being in the alpenglow

Last night we held our "Longest Night" service, with readings, healing prayers and candle lighting. The service is more low-key and especially for those who find the holiday season a little too intense. Below is my homily, and the photograph is me sitting on the ridge described (in the Alpenglow):

+ + +

If you’ve ever hiked in the mountains, above where the trees won’t grow, you know that the sun can be very bright in the daytime, much brighter than in the lowlands.

The air is thinner above the tree line and it is easy to get sunburned. 

But dusk high in the mountains, that is something all together different.

There is a place I go in the high Sierra. I’ve not been there in a few years, so mostly I go these days in my mind’s eye.

This place is on a high ridge in the heart of Yosemite. It takes about a half-day to hike up there. The ridge faces east, looking out across Tuolumne Meadows, and toward the sharp, glacially polished spires of the aptly named Cathedral peaks.

 I like to sit on this ridge at dusk. As the sun sets behind me, it casts a reddish-orange glow, and the mountains begin to shimmer for a few minutes.

It’s called “alpenglow,” and there is no better place to experience the alpenglow than on this ridge high in the Sierra Nevada. The amazing thing about alpenglow is you can feel the warmth of the sun even as the coolness of the night begins to settle over the mountains. And if you can hold the alpenglow in your mind, its warmth will carry you to the dawn and the return of the sun.  

Sometimes the bright lights of the Christmas season can be a little too intense. Religion itself can be like that. Religion can be too bright, too certain, too religious, and we can feel sunburned by it.

Sometimes all we need is the alpenglow. That is enough.

So tonight we will light a few candles, enough to give us the alpenglow. 

As you sit in the alpenglow tonight, there is really only one thing I want you to know. I have only one sermon, really, and it is this: God loves you. God loves you, no matter what. God loves you no matter what you’ve done, or not done, where you’ve been, or haven’t been. God loves you in your triumphs and in your failings, and God’s love comes with no strings attached, no qualifying phrases that begin with “if” or “but.”

It doesn’t matter what you’ve believe or not believe. You are in God’s loving embrace. You’ve met God in the alpenglow every evening of your life, even when you didn’t see the glow.

Moses saw God in a burning bush, and maybe that was just too bright for the rest of us. That is why I believe the divine came to earth as a human being, the One who we know as Jesus, so that we might experience the alpenglow of the creator. That, really, is the point of Christmas, to celebrate the glow of the One who comes among us.

Yet I know that is not always easy to feel or to believe. So tonight, rest in the alpenglow, and know that is enough.

Maybe there is something weighing on you tonight, a burden you are carrying, or a problem that just won’t resolve, or a relationship that is complicated, or a situation that is difficult. Or you miss someone close who is far away or gone. Rest tonight in the alpenglow of God’s love.

Maybe there is something deep inside you that needs healing. Soon we will offer prayers for healing, prayers for you and prayers for the people you love. I would urge you to come forward, don’t be shy. Come be open to the prayers that are a gift to you tonight in the alpenglow. And then light a candle.

And then I would offer again the words of St. Paul, written long ago to a small isolated community of Christians who were just trying to figure out how to get from one day to the next. He might as well have written these words to us:

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Watching just beyond the candle light


I haven't posted here in many weeks, instead focusing on my book project in my early morning writing time. I am close to finishing a first draft, so it is getting time once again to come back to this space.

A few kinds folks asked me this morning to post my sermon, so that seems a good way to start. The day is icy, and sleet is covering the sidewalks. More than 100 hearty souls braved the weather to make it to church. We improvised a few things, and it was a more intimate worship than we typically experience.

I  was not slated to preach today, but put something together with a major inspirational assist from Steven Charleston. The readings for today are Isaiah 11:1-10Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12.

Here it is:

+ + +

         Good morning. Thank you for being for braving the elements and being here this morning. Not everyone could get here, including our scheduled preacher, and so our prayers today are with everyone who isn’t here. And we are here to pray for them.
         I had not planned to preach today, so forgive me, I haven’t had much time to prepare. That of course, goes a bit against the admonitions of Advent, a time when we are told to be awake because we don’t know what is coming next.
         But I am an old newspaper reporter, and I can still do a few things on deadline.
         This morning I could give you a little biblical background about John the Baptist, but I’d rather save that for another day.
         Today might be a day to be a little more low key, a little quieter than John the Baptist calling us a brood of vipers. Today I would rather John’s unquenchable fire stay in the fire place.
         So, I’d like to read you something that a friend of mine wrote the other day on his Facebook page. This is from Steven Charleston, who is the retired bishop of Alaska.
         Here is what he wrote:
         When the hour is late and the world is quiet, when prayers are being said and dreams are being sought, then the space between this life and the life to come draws thin, and if you look with eyes of the Spirit you will see your ancestors watching over you, watching just beyond the candle light, keeping their gentle vigil through the night, offering their wisdom in words too still to speak.
“You are being blessed by those who loved you most. You are safe in their care. The air around you is filled with a ceaseless benediction, your life held secure in hearts as pure as holy.”
Advent is a time of being awake the holy that is so near us. It is a time of waiting for the holy, but also noticing the holy already here. It is a time for noticing our dreams, looking with the eyes of the Spirit into the candlelight. It is a time for remembering our ancestors, and feeling their presence.
I am always struck by those individuals who feel this more clearly than I do, more clearly than the rest of us. John the Baptist was certainly one – it is why people flocked to the river to hear him and be washed in the river by him. He told them to repent – the word means “turn around.”
The word “repent” has gotten so laden with guilt and judgment that it has lost its meaning with us. But in its classic meaning, repent means simply, turn around to see God once again.
All he was really doing is telling people to turn around, go home, what you seek is already with you – God is walking with you. If you can see that, feel that, your life will be changed.
We’ve had people like that in our own time – and some have been prophets and sages. We know them because we can see how the Holy Spirit changed them, and then how they profoundly change the lives of others, and even change entire nations.
We know them by how they march in the light of God, and how they base their life not on hatred, violence and revenge, but on love, hope and reconciliation.
St. Paul himself was a man of violence and hatred until the Holy Spirit filled him the joy and peace of believing.
We lost one of those giant figures this week – Nelson Mandela. He transformed himself from a prophet of violence to a prophet of love and forgiveness. He changed a nation and changed the world.
At communion today we will sing the hymn, Marching in the Light of God, that became the unofficial anthem of those in South Africa who brought down apartheid.
We are blessed by so many other people still living. And we are still blessed by those who are gone from us but whose lives we can feel in flicker of the candle light, the breath of the wind.
Most of them aren’t famous, but they somehow touched our lives deeply. Who are they for you?
Some are our ancestors, and they watch over us, whisper to us.
May this Advent be a time for you to remember those individuals in your prayers, give thanks for how they changed you, and then be awake to how they still walk with you.
And soon, we will remember again how long ago, God came to be among us as a human being, as Jesus, and how by his life we are changed, healed and made new forever.
There really is more to this life than what you see now.
No matter what bruises and bumps we encounter along the way, healing does come, sometimes here, sometimes in the next life – but healing comes.
Life eternal begins in this place and dwells with each and every one of us. The One who comes is already here. The dawn soon arrives, and the blessing is ours forever. So be awake, look for the salvation that is already yours forever.
And may we always march in the Light of God.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Praying for Syria and for our leaders

Dear friends of St. Paul’s,

As our national leaders weigh the moral decision of whether to take military action in the conflict in Syria, we as people of faith are called to common prayer that peace will prevail and suffering will end. Each Sunday we pray for our leaders and for all those in harm’s way. In this time of national debate, it is particularly important that we hold in prayer all those whose lives will be affected by the decisions of our elected leaders.

People of all the Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – are responding especially to Pope Francis’ call to prayer and fasting this Saturday. I am aware of many Episcopal churches and cathedrals across the country that are holding prayer vigils Saturday. However, with a football game near our church it is not practical for us to hold such a vigil in our building. But I would ask that all of us find time on Saturday to pray for peace and an end to the violence in Syria and elsewhere in our world.

I also would urge all of us to be mindful that there are people of good will and strong faith on both sides of the issue on whether to intervene militarily in Syria. We need to be respectful of each other’s viewpoints, and especially hold each other in prayer.

I also want you to know that I met privately on Thursday with U.S. Rep. Robert Hurt, who represents our region in Congress. I assured him that we are praying for him, the Congress, and President Obama. I urged him to set aside political and election calculations and vote his conscience, as the Lord guides him.

I was asked to give Rep. Hurt a letter from Christian leaders in Syria representing the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which is a member of the World Council of Churches of which we are also a part. In their letter, the Syrian Christian leaders condemned chemical attacks “that have caused immense suffering,” but they also urged military restraint. “We appeal for help to stop violence and help bring about peace and social justice – violence only breeds violence, and justice enhances life. Help the Syrians have life, life in its abundance.”

I would humbly ask that we stand together as people of faith, and that we continue to pray that God’s justice and peace will prevail here on earth.


Jim +

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Blessing: May God take your hearts and set them on fire

This morning I used a blessing at the end of our 10 am service that I hadn't used before. I learned it from a priest friend, Liz Jones, who lives in Mississippi. She says the author is unknown (other than the first two lines from the Bible), and so it "belongs to the world." It's known down in Mississippi as "Liz's Blessing." Some asked me for it after church today, so here is Liz's Blessing:
+ + + 
May the Lord Bless you and keep you. 
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. 
May God give you grace not to sell yourselves short, 
Grace to risk something big for something good, 
Grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love. 
May God take your minds and think through them. 
May God take your lips and speak through them. 
May God take your hands and work through them. 
May God take your hearts and set them on fire.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Where are the words of peace?

Egyptian Muslims protecting
Christian churches
Like everyone, I am saddened at the tragic and violent events in Egypt. As a preacher, I found last Sunday's gospel lesson Luke 12:49-56 difficult to work with, to say the least: Jesus declares he comes not to bring peace but division, to set parents against children, and worse.

It was tempting to skip, to preach on something else. But I did my best. Below is my offering from the pulpit.

In the days ahead, my postings here will be less often. I am deeply immersed in writing the book about my abolitionist ancestor, the Rev. George Richardson, that I began nine years ago and put on hold. He lived in a time of great division: the American Civil War. He fought for justice and the emancipation and education of slaves. Peace without that was a false peace.

My sabbatical allowed me to regain the spirit and the words for this project, and I feel it important to finish. My morning writing time will be mostly devoted to writing the book. I will keep you posted on it, and post other items from time to time. Just not as often.

Here is my sermon from last Sunday:

+ + +

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now. Very hard.

Egypt is being torn apart by political and religious strife, and many have died. Syria is in the depths of a seemingly unending civil war.

Our own country remains at war in Afghanistan and there are threats of war with Iran. The words of peace are very hard to hear in our world right now.

And the words of peace are very hard to hear in today’s biblical lessons. Instead of words of peace, we get the Book of Isaiah – and words that echo in the Battle the Hymn of the Republic:

“He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”

Instead of words of peace, we get the Letter to the Hebrews with descriptions of torture and flogging, and a stern admonition to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Nor to we get a warm, fuzzy, peaceful Jesus today:

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” Jesus thunders, “and how I wish it were already kindled!” Today, the good shepherd seems to be in someone else’s pasture:

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Oh my.

Jesus, most assuredly, is not giving advice on child rearing or solving family dysfunctions. Now, let me pause and tell you I don’t pick these lessons. For those of you unfamiliar with our peculiar way of doing things, these biblical lessons come from what is called “the lectionary,” and the lessons are assigned on a three-year cycle.

You will hear the same lessons today in Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches, and many other churches.

Today, whether we like it or not, we get a sword, not a plowshare. No peace, no shalom, no salaam.

Or do we?

There may be another way to hear this. It may be that God’s peace is very different than how the world thinks of it.

It may be that God’s peace is not about power and politics, not about armies, but about justice for those who are oppressed, poor, exploited, wounded, and living in the low places. Sometimes being an agent of God’s peace means going into the heart of conflict because it is precisely in those places where God walks with the lowly.

And it is in precisely those places that God’s kingdom breaks through.

A friend of mine, Craig Klein, a deacon who lives up on the North Coast of California, terms passages like this: “God in the sharp points.”

It is on the sharp points that we are most acutely aware of God breaking open our hearts for others around us.

It is very tempting to avoid the sharp points because they are painful. Conflict is unpleasant and messy and worse.

And Jesus knows us well.

We might be tempted to build walls around ourselves by building walls around the church, and insulate ourselves from the conflicts and heartbreaks of the world.

But those heartbreaks walk right through this door whether we like it or not.

The absence of conflict is not peace, it is not shalom, it is not salaam. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in, or wishful thinking about, that which wounds us and others. Sometimes the absence of conflict is acquiescence in evil.

The Gospel calls us to see the sharp points of our time, because it is in the muck of conflict where God finds us and shows us a way to real peace.

Real peace is not letting those who exploit people and pollute the earth get away with it.

We are called to build a world where the wounded are healed, the refugees are rescued, the poor are fed and those held in human bondage are freed.

We are called to make no peace with the forces of oppression.

The sharp points can break open our hearts and allow us to respond to the world in ways we never imagined possible.

Jesus never promised this would be easy. But each of us has the gifts to do our share to bind the wounds of the world.

Each one of us experiences the sharp points some time in our life. And that means each one of us has something to contribute from our own experience.

God gives us everything we need to do this work right here in this place and in our daily lives.

Lives really are changed by the Living Christ through you. People really are freed from what enslaves them, and God’s kingdom really is bursting alive through you.

We are called to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Jeremy Taylor: the saint of practical living for a holy life

I am back from sabbatical, and today seems like a good day to start posting again on the blog. It is the feast day of one of my favorite Anglican saints, Jeremy Taylor. Here is what I wrote about him awhile back...

+ + +
Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), one of the Caroline Divines,  is chiefly known for his masterful work, The Rules and Exercise of Holy Living (1650) which has never gone out of print.

I've mentioned him in this space on other occasions, and I continue to return to his works and wisdom on everything from church politics to prayer. Above all he strived to be practical; theological theory was meaningless to Taylor if he could not touch it, test it, live with it in the real world. Here is a gem from Holy Living:
“Let everything you see represent to your spirit the presence, the excellency, and the power of God; and let your conversation with the creatures lead you unto the Creator; for so shall your actions be done more frequently, with an actual eye to God’s presence, by your often seeing him in the glass of the creation.

In the face of the sun you may see God’s beauty; in the fire you may feel his heat warming; in the water, his gentleness to refresh you: he it is that comforts your spirit when you have taken cordials; it is the dew of heaven that makes your field give you bread; and the breasts of God are the bottles that minister drink to your necessities.”
Taylor should be known for much more, including his Liberty of Prophesying (1647) a book calling for an end to government-backed coercion in support of religion, an idea that would not take root for another century in the Enlightenment.

In his day, Taylor was known as a great preacher and a masterful crafter of prose, including this from a sermon given in 1653:
Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of recollection, the seat of meditation, the rest of our cares and the calm of our tempest; prayer is the issue of a quiet mind, of untroubled thoughts, it is the daughter of charity, and the sister of meekness.
Taylor profoundly influenced his own generation and those who came after him, including Thomas Jefferson who said every educated person should have Taylor on the bookshelf. Many of Taylor's quotes can be found in 19th century "books of days," the forerunner to the contemporary "Forward Day by Day." Taylor's story is worth telling.

Taylor was born and educated in Cambridge, the fourth of six children; eventually coming to the attention of Archbishop William Laud who heard him preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Taylor became the protégé of Laud, who secured for him a teaching post at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1635. Taylor was also appointed chaplain to King Charles I. Taylor was on the ecclesiastical fast-track, and seemed destined to become a bishop, perhaps even Archbishop of Canterbury.

Life intervened.

In 1640, Charles I overplayed his hand with the Puritans in Parliament, and civil war erupted between the armies of Parliament and the Royalists. England was ravaged. In 1642, the king was captured along with his chaplain, Taylor. Charles I was beheaded and as he went to the gallows, he gave his ring to Taylor, who was allowed to go into exile in Wales in 1645.

In Wales, Taylor wrote prolifically, taking an attitude that both sides were profoundly wrong and sinful. He took Anglican theological theory and applied it to real life as he experienced it. In his most popular book, Holy Living, Taylor explained a way of practicing a “holy life” in ordinary walks of life. He lived at a time when prayer books were banned, churches burned, and people felt adrift and worse. How could they worship God – be present with God – if not in a church? Taylor explained how, and it made him one of the most popular and oft-printed religious authors well into the early 20th century.

For Taylor, God was everywhere. Contemporary authors have re-discovered that theme, but few have crafted language as soaring as Taylor's:
“So that we imagine God to be as the air and the sea; and we all enclosed in his circle, wrapped up in the lap of his infinite nature, or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant mothers: and we can no more be removed from the presence of God than from our being.”
When Taylor's wife died, he wrote a companion volume to Holy Living, called Holy Dying. It was truly an ode to his wife, and his own way of struggling through his grief. Edmund Gosse, who wrote a biography of Taylor in 1903 that is still quite readable, considers Holy Dying Taylor's most overlooked masterpiece (the engraving at right is an inset on the cover page to Holy Dying; note the skeleton in the mirror). It is a sad book, and a hard read, but within in the book is hope for new life to come.

Eventually, the monarchy was restored. Taylor was made a bishop, but in Northern Ireland (perhaps because the Royalists did not fully trust him). Truthfully, he had a miserable time as a bishop, fought endlessly with the Irish priests, and longed for a return to England that never came.

In Ireland, he began writing yet another long set of works, including a treatise on how bishops have a role in the church only as long as they are promoting ministry. He also developed his own doctrine of "just war" that was stricter than the prevalent doctrine handed down from the Catholic era in Britain. Perhaps we would do well in our day to take a few pages from Taylor.

He outlived most of his children, and died in 1667. From Holy Dying: "When we descend to our graves, we may rest in the bosom of our Lord, till the mansions be prepared where we are shall sing and feast eternally."

May you have a blessed feast day of Jeremy Taylor.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Friday, May 31, 2013

Update on our sabbatical

I've got a new post on our sabbatical developments. You can read it by clicking HERE.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

New blog for sabbatical

I've created a new blog for my sabbatical journey, called simply enough Sabbatical 2013.

You can also reach it by clicking HERE.

The first article is the same as the article below. From here on out, please check the new blog:

Update on my sabbatical: CREDO conference, core values, mission; and on the the road West

On the road with Lori
NASHVILLE, TENN. – We are on the third day of our cross-country trek, and taking it a little easy on a rainy day. Tomorrow we will tour the Stones River National Battlefield about 30 miles south of here, and then Monday push onward to Memphis. My ancestor – George Richardson, the topic of my sabbatical writing project – was in both places in the Civil War.

But let’s back up a little.

Let me bring you up to date on my sabbatical, particularly the CREDO conference I completed Monday at the Duncan Gray Center in Canton, Mississippi.

CREDO is sponsored by the Episcopal Church Pension Fund, and these conferences are designed to help clergy take a step back from ministry and examine what we are doing, why we are doing it, and give ourselves a little pastoral care in the process.

As I got on the airplane for Mississippi, I had a huge feeling of gratitude for the people of St. Paul’s Memorial Church for giving me this time away after five years. And I am enormously grateful to the clergy and staff of St. Paul’s for “holding down the fort” while I am away.

This was the second CREDO conference I’ve attended. The first was six years ago; also at the Duncan Gray Center. At the time I was in-between jobs in the Church. In a very real sense that first CREDO launched me on the path I am on now because it broadened my horizons and my sense of what God might be calling me to do outside of my comfort zones.

Duncan Gray Center
Canton, MS.
This second CREDO was, in many ways, deeper and richer than the first. There were 30 of us, including several clergy struggling with difficult issues. One member of our CREDO group had his New Jersey church and his home wiped out by Hurricane Sandy.

Other participants were struggling with significant health issues, or life transitions ranging from new positions to retirement. We had a healing service on Thursday of our CREDO week, and there were a lot of tears in the chapel.

The central exercise of our CREDO conference was to identify our personal core values, and then look at how those values fit with our personal “rule of life,” or mission statement. We had a very able faculty with us, and they provided us with personal consultations as we worked on the exercises through the week.

After a lot of work and discussion, here is what I came up with as my top five core values:
• Openness to all people in all circumstances
• God’s dream of social justice, peace and the healing of the planet
• Giving as a way of life
• Creativity
• Loyalty
That is not to say that I live up to those values, but rather that these values should guide me in my life and ministry.

From that, I took a new look at my personal mission statement – “Let there be light” – which is also the title of this blog, Fiat Lux. That statement came out of my first CREDO conference, and is borrowed from a line in the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:79): “To shine on those dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death.”

I realized at this second CREDO conference that I needed to expand this statement to fit with my core values, and to do that, all I needed to do is add the line in the Song of Zechariah to make my mission statement complete. So here it is, fuller this time, and again from the Song of Zechariah:
“To shine on those dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet in the way of peace.”
By the way, the full Song of Zechariah is part of the Morning Prayer service in the Book of Common Prayer, on pages 92-93. I like to read it every morning.

Here is another version, from the colloquial translation called “The Message”:
“God’s Sunrise will break in upon us, shining on those in the darkness, those sitting in the shadow of death, then showing us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace.”
I will check back with you as this journey progresses.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Monday, April 22, 2013

My sabbatical begins

Dear friends,

I am beginning a three month sabbatical by traveling to the Duncan Gray retreat center in Canton, Mississippi for a CREDO conference.  I will be there for the next week.

The Episcopal Church likes to take its clergy away every few years for a little brushing up on basics and a reminder of why we got into this calling in the first place. I did one of these CREDO conferences a year before I came to St. Paul's, so it is definitely time to go again.

I won't be posting much on Fiat Lux in the next few months. The blog will be on sabbatical, too. When I get a chance I will set up a new blog just for the sabbatical to let you know what I am up to. I will post the link on this blog.

For now, let me leave you with this photo that Leslie Middleton and Pat Punch (that's him in the picture) sent me. Says it all.



Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Wednesday Funnies

I think we all could use a good laugh this week. Here is a new cartoon by Dave Walker...

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Come stand with us in this darkness

My friend, Steven Charleston, the retired bishop of Alaska and former dean of our seminary in Boston, wrote this on his Facebook this morning, and he says this better than I could:

Why? Why the pointless cruelty, O God? Why the premeditated evil that comes to bring death, pain and sorrow to innocent lives and leaves us stunned to imagine a heart so cold it could conceive such an act? We cannot understand it, God, we cannot make sense of the senseless. And how should we respond even if we did understand? Tooth for tooth, eye for eye, would it end the madness or return the lost to live again? Come, Spirit of God, come stand with us in this darkness. Hold the fallen in your arms. Heal the injured. Comfort the broken-hearted. And if you cannot tell us why we do this to ourselves, show us how to love more deeply, that such pain will never be the final word, but rather mercy that needs no explanation.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Monday Funnies

My friend Gregg Fishman passed along this story, with apologies (and thanks to Lori for finding the cartoon from ECF Vital Practices)...

+ + +

Hans Grapje was raised in a Catholic orphanage in The Hague and, as a young man, aspired to become a priest when he immigrated to the U.S., but was drafted into the Army during WWII and spent two years co-piloting B17s until his aircraft was shot down in 1943 and he lost his left arm.

Captain Grapje spent the rest of the war as a chaplain, giving spiritual aid to soldiers, both Allied and enemy. After the war, he became a priest, serving as a missionary in Africa , piloting his own plane (in spite of his handicap) to villages across the continent.

In 1997, Father Grapje was serving in Zimbabwe when an explosion in a silver mine caused a cave-in. Grapje went down into the mine to administer last rights to those too severely injured to move. Another shaft collapsed, and he was buried for three days, suffering multiple injuries, including the loss of his right eye. The high silver content in the mine’s air gave him purpura, a life-long condition characterized by purplish skin blotches.

Grapje is now a cardinal, having devoted his life to the service of God as a scholar, mentor and holy man. However, commentators and analysts completely discounted him in the recent conclave.

The Church was simply not ready for a one-eyed, one-armed, flying purple Papal leader.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Gone fishing

Today’s sermon is based on:   John 21:1-19.

+ + +

If I had spent a month looking for it, I could not have picked a better lesson than this one assigned for today from the Gospel of John.

Let’s recap: After Jesus dies, the disciples go fishing, and when they get back to shore, a stranger cooks them breakfast on the beach.

They don’t recognize him as Jesus until he breaks the bread. And then Jesus proceeds to instruct Peter on what needs to be done:

Feed my sheep.

Today is my last Sunday with you before my sabbatical leave-of-absence begins. I will be away until August.

For the next three-and-a-half months, I will be working on a book.

And I’m going to do a little fishing and have breakfast on Fridays with old newspaper friends back in Sacramento.

They may not look like Jesus, or his disciples, but you’d be surprised at their hearts of gold.

You should know that a great deal of planning has gone into what will happen while I am gone.

Christie Thomas, our senior warden, John Reid, our parish administrator, and Peter Carey, our senior associate rector, have devised a detailed 28-page plan for who will be doing what in my absence. You are in very good, able and organized hands.

Sabbaticals are normal and positive occasions in the rhythm of parish life. Sabbaticals are a time of renewal for your rector, and for all of us to step back to reconnect with the foundations of our shared ministry.

While I am gone, the Vestry will be engaged in a process known as “mutual ministry review” and will be guided by the Rev. Pat Wingo, who is the canon, or chief assistant, to the bishop in our diocese, Shannon Johnston.

That process will culminate in an all-day retreat with the Vestry, Canon Wingo and myself when I get back in the fall.

I have been here almost five years, and we have experienced many changes together both personally and collectively.

We’ve welcomed new people, said goodbye to others, and grieved the deaths of still others. We ended some ministries, strengthened others and developed a few new ones.

The life of a congregation and rector unfolds in chapters. We’ve been through the getting-to-know you chapter, and the getting-down-to-work chapter. This sabbatical will mark the beginning of a new chapter.

How that new chapter will unfold none of us yet know. It will be written not just by us, but will be the work of the Holy Spirit working in all of us – of that I firmly believe or I wouldn’t be here. As a clergy friend pointed out to me last week, I will be on sabbatical, but the One who creates us and redeems us is never on sabbatical.

And that brings me to this remarkable story of Jesus feeding breakfast to his friends on the beach. Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep.” And as if to underline it, Jesus tells Peter three times, feed my sheep.

So, Peter, feed my sheep.

Biblical commentators speculate that Jesus told Peter to “feed my sheep” three times as a way of closing the episode before the crucifixion when Peter denies knowing Jesus three times.

That has a nice literary bookendish quality to it, and the fact the Jesus entrusts Peter, with all his flaws, is a statement that God’s boundless grace and love will triumph over our biggest mistakes and our worst sins.

I definitely find comfort in that idea.

But I wonder if there is another reason Jesus tells Peter to feed my sheep three times?

I wonder if Jesus says that three times because Peter isn’t quite getting it who the sheep are; that the sheep aren’t just the 12 guys enjoying breakfast together.

The sheep are many. The sheep include all of us who are here today; and the sheep include people who haven’t found their way here yet.

They include our students from across the street and people in our community who are hurting. Jesus does not come to establish a private dining club. He feeds his disciples breakfast and then sends them out to feed the sheep – and feed them everywhere.

He especially sends his disciples to be with the poor, the sick, the starving, the prisoners, the homeless, the unemployed.

He sends us.

Feed my sheep.

Feed my sheep.

Feed my sheep.

William Temple, the truly great Archbishop of Canterbury in World War II, once said: “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.” Feed my sheep. All of them.

In 2010 we celebrated our centennial with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the chief bishop of the Episcopal Church.

She challenged us in this pulpit, where I stand, to hear Jesus’ call to “be bold.” And we’ve been living into that challenge of how to be bold here at St, Paul’s.

Our Stephen Ministers visit with those who need a sympathetic ear; our hospital visitors spend time with the sick. Our Sunday school teachers educate our children in the faith, and our acolytes and choir brighten and inspire our worship.

Many of you bring dinner on Sunday for our university students, who gather regularly for prayer, study and friendship.

Martha’s Guild volunteers work tirelessly on hospitality events like the “Women Walking Together” luncheon yesterday.

Feed my sheep.

Our sheep are many, and are beyond our walls. PACEM volunteers give shelter to to people who live on the street, and our Salvation Army dinner teams feed those who are down on their luck. Feed my sheep.

We also need to look at why some sheep are hungry. We are part of a coalition of congregations in Charlottesville called “IMPACT,” which stands for:

“Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.”

IMPACT is the only organization in our region that brings Christians, Jews and Muslims together, and a common cause to change the social systems that perpetuate poverty, unemployment and homelessness. In a world that is torn to pieces by religious strife, uniting across religious lines to do anything at all is extraordinary.

These past two years it has been my privilege to serve as the co-president of IMPACT, and my time in this post will soon draw to a close.

So there is something I want you to do while I am gone.

IMPACT’s annual gathering, called the Nehemiah Action, will be on Monday April 29 at 6:30 pm at the John Paul Jones Arena.

I cannot go, but I want you to go.

All of you.

And I want you to invite others to go with you.

This year we’ve been working on the most complex and difficult issues we’ve ever tackled – unemployment and homelessness in our region.

We need you there to show support for these efforts.

You need a ticket to get in, and you can get one this morning from some folks right near you. Feed my sheep. Be at the Nehemiah Action.

My friends, thank you for having me as your pastor and priest, for supporting Lori and me, and for serving each other and the world beyond these walls.

We have traveled far together already, and there are more miles to go on our road together. You will be in my thoughts and prayers, and may each of you go from strength to strength, and blessing upon blessing.

It is time for me to go fishing. Be bold.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Abraham's Stars

St. Paul's Memorial Church is one of the founders of IMPACT, an interfaith coalition of 27 congregations -- Christian, Jewish and Muslim -- working together on community issues in Charlottesville.

We will soon gather at the John Paul Jones Arena on April 29 at 6:30 pm to hear our proposals for a coordinated effort to reduce homelessness and create new entry-level jobs for young adults. I hope you will come.

The other evening I gave a reflection for IMPACT leaders from our congregations, and I used the occasion partly as a refresher on how IMPACT does what it does. Roughly one-third of our congregational leaders are new to this, so it was a good moment to pause and reflect on how we got where we are and the accomplishments we have so far achieved. Here is the text of my talk:

+ + +

Abraham’s Stars

Genesis 15:1-6
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great…” He brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
I want you to look around – look at each other tonight and count the stars among you, for you are Abraham’s stars. The Lord has reckoned you as righteous and good and beloved. Do not be afraid, God told Abraham, and God tells us: Do not be afraid. You are Abraham’s stars.

Tonight I want to spend a few minutes talking about IMPACT, what we are, how we got here, what we’ve accomplished and why we do what we do the way we do it.

So let’s have a little refresher on IMPACT.

We were founded in 2006 by a group of congregations who came together wanting to make a difference in our community.

Many were already involved in ministries of mercy like PACEM and the Salvation Army. They wanted to see if they could change the system so that ministries like PACEM and the Salvation Army would no longer be necessary one day.

The group affiliated with a training organization based in Florida called DART that began showing our congregational leaders and clergy how to create a listening-based community organizing structure that would tackle tough issues in Charlottesville.

Rabbi Dan Alexander of Congregation Beth Israel came up with the acronym, IMPACT, which stands for: Interfaith Movement Promoting Action by Congregations Together.

IMPACT’s method is based on listening to members of our congregations to find out what issues are most on their minds and hearts.

We do that every year in our congregations. In my congregation we have a series of house meetings. From there we narrow the issues. In the fall, we hold the Annual Team Assembly and hear presentations on the problems we’ve heard about from you.

Everyone in our congregations is invited, and we vote to narrow the issue to one or two for the year.

Then members of our congregations volunteer to serve on research teams to find out all we can about the issue for the year.

They come up with proposed solutions, and they meet with decision makers to further refine these solutions. Our goal is to not blindside anyone.

That’s where we come in tonight – to hear about the progress on the two issues we are working on this year: youth unemployment and homelessness – and how we are pushing for action with decision makers in our community.

You will hear more on these topics soon.

Then comes the Nehemiah Action where we ask you to bring at least three people with you to fill the John Paul Jones Arena.

We ask that the decision makers who can make changes in the system come to the Nehemiah Action and appear in on stage.

We ask them if they will commit to the solutions. We will applaud them for positive answers and remain scrupulously polite at all times.

We do this in public because this is a public process we are engaged with. We ask they make their commitments in front of you, the people who have raised these issues and worked on finding solutions.

We ask that you bring as many people as possible to show that there is support in our congregations for these solutions.

This is about grassroots support for realistic solutions, but that also can make some people very uncomfortable because it may not be the way they are accustomed to conducting business.

There is another level to this that I want to talk to you about.

What we do with IMPACT is to share the influence that we have together – power that we have by being together rather than working apart.

We are being asked to come together to share our collective power especially with those in our community who are not accustomed to having much influence or having their voices heard, like our unemployed young people or the homeless.

And IMPACT is remarkable for another reason: In world torn apart by religious differences, we come together looking for what we have in common as heirs to Abraham.

That may make some of us uncomfortable for many reasons. But this is not about our personal comfort. You are being asked to be uncomfortable by standing with those who don’t have much influence on their own.

All of us are being asked to stand up with one voice, to use our voice, and to use keep standing together to change our world.

And you know what? We already have, right here in Charlottesville. Let’s count our successes in the last four years:
* In 2007, IMPACT won new bus routes serving low-income neighborhoods so that people can get to school and work, or go to the grocery store. 
* In 2008, IMPACT won approval of a free dental clinic serving thousands of people who have no dental insurance. 
* In 2010, IMPACT won approval from local law enforcement agencies to develop translation services for non-English speaking people who encounter the Justice system.
Many of our successes take more than one year.
* It took two years to win expansion of pre-school education programs.

* It took two years to win approval from the city and county for the healthy transitions program for the mentally ill. 
* It took three years to win approval of an affordable housing trust fund and the refurbishment of hundreds of housing units for low-income people.
And now we are engaged in the most difficult and complex issues we have ever engaged with: jobs and homelessness.

The outcome of this year’s Nehemiah Action is still uncertain. You will hear more on these issues a little later, but let me underline this year – more than ever – it especially important that you bring as many people as you can to the Nehemiah Action on April 29.

Last spring, we brought 1,537 people to the Nehemiah Action to speak with one voice and have an impact in our community, and that got us part of the way on our issues.

But we still have a long distance to go. We will not get there without you.

If we were to bring the equivalent of one day’s average worship attendance we would have 4,000. Think of the impact we would have with that many voices and the bigger issues we could tackle in the years ahead. Think of what we might accomplish together.

Tonight we are on a journey like our ancestor Abraham. We are walking together on a road with many bumps and curves. We will make our share of mistakes and a wrong turn or two.

But know this: This same God, the God of Abraham, the God of Moses, the God of Jesus, the God of Mohammed is with us, and will guide us, and will bring us safely through. Do not be afraid, God told Abraham. Do not be afraid, God tells us.

You and I are Abraham’s stars.

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The benefit of the doubt

Today sermon is based on John 20:19-31:

+ + +

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

So where the heck was Thomas? Where was he when all these amazing things were taking place?

Let’s put ourselves in his shoes for a moment. The disciples are in hiding, in a locked room, afraid for their lives.

Maybe Thomas was out getting them food.

Thomas goes back to the secret hideout, and he finds his friends all happy-clappy because they’ve encountered Jesus risen from the dead.

The Holy Spirit has filled them up with peace and joy. The flame of Pentecost has come upon them like a volcano.

But Thomas missed the show, and he is pretty darn peeved.

“Show me,” he says. “Unless I touch the wounds of Jesus I’m not going to believe any of this. Show me.”

Thomas wasn’t even his real name. The word “Thomas” was a nickname for “Twin.” One chronicler of the time said his real name was “Judas” and he adopted the nickname Thomas, or Twin, to distinguish himself from that other Judas, which was a common Jewish name.

And before we go any further, let’s pause a moment and talk about the opening sentence of this gospel lesson that declares the disciples are in hiding “for fear of the Jews.”

Unfortunately, that line has been used for centuries to justify anti-Semitism by labeling Jews as “Christ killers.” But just keep in mind that everyone in this story, including the people in hiding in the locked room, is Jewish.

Emotions were running high in Jerusalem immediately after the crucifixion.

As the gospel accounts tell us, the crowds were very much on the side of Jesus, not Pontius Pilate or the collaborator Temple authorities who had concocted a mock trial and mob justice to get Jesus.

Maybe Thomas was in hiding himself, afraid because he might have been mistaken for the other Judas.

As it turned out, he went down in history as “Doubting Thomas,” and many a preacher will be using him today as a foil to implore congregations to set aside all doubts and ratchet up their faith.

Yet I’d like you to notice a few things today in the story of Thomas the Twin. No one condemns him for doubting. The disciples bring him into their hiding place. They don’t cast him out for his doubts.

No one judges Thomas for saying what surely was on the lips and minds of others outside the room. The disciples give Thomas the benefit of the doubt. They love him and embrace him, doubts and all. Today I want to talk about dimension to this life of faith that we don’t acknowledge enough in our churches:


The story of “Doubting Thomas” is a story about the power of doubt.

There is plenty of reason to doubt the reality of this story. Jesus enters a locked room. He comes in physical form, yet he is beyond physical, as if he is from some other dimension of time and space.

Yet the Risen Christ is very real to those who experienced it; he is no mere metaphor; he is so real they can touch him.

Jesus comes to Thomas and shows him his physical wounds. Thomas responds with astonishment, as any of us would:

“My Lord and my God!”

And Jesus tells Thomas that others are blessed to believe without seeing the way he has seen. In effect, Jesus tells Thomas to doubt his doubts, and Thomas does, and by so doing he comes to a new understanding of himself and his own walk of faith.

For Thomas, his transformation begins by proclaiming openly his doubts.

Doubt is not an enemy of faith. Doubt can be a tool of faith bringing us to a deeper sense of the divine within us, and a deeper sense of our true self.

To grow in faith requires asking the hard questions, and being comfortable waiting for answers. Thomas the Twin only has to wait a week to find answers, but many of us will spend a lifetime grappling with doubt.

To live fully into faith is to live on the edge of faith by pushing beyond the pat answers and clichés of culture and religion.

Blind faith is a very thin faith.

And communities of faith that leave no room for the expression of doubt become hollow and stale – or worse, self-destructive cults.

The tools of reason, inquiry and analysis are gifts from God, and can yield truths beneath surface readings of religious texts and doctrines.

When we put those tools of the mind with the tools of the heart through prayer, we will grow in faith beyond anything we think possible, both individually and as a community of faith.

Giving the benefit of the doubt to ourselves, and to each other, can break down walls of isolation and create islands of compassion as we grow in our faith together.

Doubt is not Thomas’ sin. Thomas has a different sin – he scoffs at his friends when they tell him about their experience with the Risen Christ.

Rather than saying, “tell me more,” he pushes them away. He turns their experience into a selfish claim for himself: “If I don’t get something out of this, then it didn’t happen.”

To live with doubt is not to avoid it, but it also requires listening with open hearts and minds to the experiences of others. None of us are smart enough, or holy enough, to do this alone, or at least not very well.

The redemption in the story of Thomas is that he has an experience of the Risen Christ in spite of himself.

His redemption comes by remaining in the community that continues to embrace him even when he seems intent on pushing them away.

Did you notice something else crucial in the story?

Thomas didn’t say: “I want to see the face of Jesus.” No, he says: “I want to touch his wounds.” So when Jesus invites Thomas to touch his wounds, he is inviting him to touch all his wounds – and not just the wounds on his body. He invites Thomas to touch the wounds of the world where Jesus dwells.

Jesus invites Thomas to venture into the dwelling places of the poor, the sick, and the wounded in body, mind and spirit – to go to the empty places where doubt prevails and hope is hard to find. Like Thomas, we need to touch the wounds of Christ, and that means touching wounds of the world around us.

This is what it means to pick up your cross and follow.

This path of the Risen Christ is not about our personal comfort. This path will not always lead to personal enjoyment. We may not like what we discover. We are called to take risks.

But know this: We aren’t the first to take this path and we don’t walk alone.

Many have gone before us, and they’ve told us about how in their times of doubt and emptiness, they came to a deeper sense of the Holy. Mother Teresa quite famously told of her long years of emptiness.

It may be the difference between Mother Teresa and most of the rest of us, is people like her are patient, and we are not.

People like Mother Teresa are comfortable living with their doubts, even for a long time, even when they can’t see beyond their horizon.

They know the path can be rough, but this journey of faith ultimately is the only one worth making. The story of Thomas and his doubt does not end in the closed room. The door to the locked room opens; Thomas emerges back into the world different, changed, and somehow new from his encounter with the Risen Christ.

Nor does the story end for us today. The doors here will open, and we will go forth from this room today different, changed, and somehow new from our encounter with the Risen Christ.

And it begins by bringing all of our trust, all of our prayers, all of our wounds – and even our doubts – on this walk of faith with each other.

And when we do, watch anew for the Risen Christ coming among us, and be open to how we will be transformed, changed – made new together each and every day.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

By James Richardson, Fiat Lux

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Guest blog: If Jesus is Lord that means Caesar isn't

Brandon Ambrosino


Resurrection As Metaphor? What the Early Christians Meant When They Said, "Jesus is Lord"

Posted: 04/01/2013 1:07 am

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about the Christian concept of the resurrection. Does it matter, I asked, if Jesus' resurrection is interpreted metaphorically? My answer was that it matters a great deal, since "a Jesus whose physical body remains in the grave gives me no hope for a physically broken world."
A friend emailed me that I was reading the Gospels wrong, and that the resurrection was best interpreted metaphorically. To relegate the resurrection to a purely physical phenomenon was to read the Easter narrative in the most primitive way, at its lowest common denominator. The Resurrection narratives are given to each of us to interpret and enjoy in our own way -- literally or metaphorically.
The Easter stories, he reminded me, belong to all of us.
And yet before they belonged to us, they belonged to other people -- people who lived and thought and wrote within the first century. It seems to me, then, that if we are to truly understand what the gospel writers are trying to say, we need to contextualize them not first within our own world, but within theirs.
And it must be understood from the outset that their context is fundamentally Jewish.
At the heart of Judaism is a pattern of exile and return, which is summed up in the following passage from Deuteronomy:
When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
To commemorate their ancestors' miraculous deliverance from Egyptian slavery, Jews observe Pesach, or Passover. There are many, many layers to the story of the Exodus, but one key phrase that is often repeated in the text concerns God's motive for freeing his people: "And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord." In other words, Israel's God is saying, "I will deliver you, Israel, and the world will know that I am Lord, and Pharaoh is not."
Today, there are many branches of Judaism that see this pattern of exile and return as metaphorical; but for ancient Jews, their hope was that God would deliver Israel from their foreign rulers and create a new Heaven and Earth. Just as God sent Moses to physically deliver their ancestors from Pharaoh, Second Temple Jews prayed that God would send them another prophet like Moses to inaugurate God's kingdom.
But before God could step in as king, he'd first have to overthrow those pagan rulers still enjoying their power. In the first century, the pagan ruling over Israel was Caesar, the divine emperor of Rome. Caesar ruled with the threat of death, which was his greatest and last weapon. And even though Rome was in a relatively peaceful phase at this point, no dissension would be tolerated. Disloyalty meant death -- and Rome had a reputation for killing.
If a messiah were going to overcome Rome, he'd better be able to overcome the physical threat of death -- which is why many Jews were looking for a Messiah to lead them to military victory. It's in this context that various would-be messiahs showed up claiming to be the one to deliver Israel from the hand of her enemies. As was sadly the case, these claimants were found and murdered -- which proved that they were not what they claimed to be. If Rome killed you, then you obviously weren't the Messiah. Crucifixion meant game over for you and your movement.
But with Jesus, the story is different. Jesus is seen as a threat to the political establishment, and is murdered in the attempt to preempt any uprising in his name. And yet it's only after Jesus' murder that his followers come together and begin announcing that Jesus is, in fact, the Messiah they'd been awaiting.
"Jesus is Lord," the disciples flippantly announce, and the overtones aren't lost on anyone who's listening. If Jesus is Lord, then that means Caesar isn't. Now normally Rome would just squash this kind of rebellion by death; but in the case of Jesus, death -- both the threat and the physical state of non-existence -- have been overturned by the Resurrection.
A bodily Resurrection.
And it must be bodily because, after all, a dead Messiah -- no matter how spiritually alive he may be -- is still dead. He's especially dead if he's being experienced as a ghost. In the ancient Mediterranean world, a vision of a recently deceased loved one confirmed that he was dead... not that he was alive.
It's difficult to imagine the disciples saying, "God has warmed our hearts and caused us to experience the metaphorical presence of Jesus, and therefore we know that he's the Messiah!" Unless Jesus' postmortem appearances were experienced in a physical way, his disciples would have assumed that Rome had won again, and that Jesus, regardless of what they hoped, couldn't have been Lord.
For this reason, scholars of all persuasions are forced to seriously consider what happened between the event of Jesus' crucifixion and the event of his proclamation as Lord. As it turns out, the early Christians answer this question in their Easter stories. What convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah was that, unlike other people murdered by Rome, he didn't stay dead.
Now did Jesus bodily rise from the dead? That's not my question here. I'm simply asking, "Did the early Christians believe that Jesus had risen bodily from the dead?" And when we read the Easter stories within their first century political and religious contexts, I think the answer is emphatically, "Yes!"
At the heart of the Easter story is the belief that Jesus is Lord, and Caesar is not. This is always, in the first place, a political claim -- and a physical one.

Follow Brandon Ambrosino on Twitter: