Grafted by God

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

If we were a different sort of church, one that was used to all kinds of things happening in the place of the sermon, then at this point, on this day, I would love to invite us all to go outside into the church garden. There, I would turn things over to a guest from the New York Botanical Garden or the Central Park Conservancy or somewhere, would then then show us, tell us, and teach us all about grafting.

Grafting, is of course, that way of propagating plants where a part of one plant is fused with, inserted in, or joined with, another plant. Sometimes a cut is made in the hosting plant and a bud from another plant is inserted. Sometimes plants simply grow very closely, eventually growing into each other, much like a couple that lives and loves together over many years. At other times in grafting, the main plant (the stock) is simply split, and the other plant (the scion) is then inserted into the cleft. The place where they are joined is then covered with a grafting compound so that the new bond can build and grow and strengthen.

Grafting is used to create beauty, sometimes to create hardiness, for repair, and sometimes to create more pollen. And so, if we were that other sort of church, and we were all outside right now, having received a show-and-tell lesson on grafting, I would then have someone read the Gospel for today.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. . . . Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Jesus is the vine onto which we, all of us, are grafted. A place is made for us. Sometimes that place is made through difficulty, through painful changes, through what feel like growing pains. And sometimes we’re grafted into Christ’s Body, which is the Church, in ways that feel a little crowded at first, a little like we’re not getting all the individual attention we deserve. But with faith and time, we grow into realizing that he is the vine.

We grow into being the branches.

We see how this begins to happen in today’s first reading, as Philip tries to answer the questions of the Ethiopian eunuch. God is the master gardener here, sending Philip toward Gaza, having Philip meet the Ethiopian, and then out of the meeting of these two very different people, from very different places and backgrounds, God makes something new. The Ethiopian is baptized. He is grafted on to the life of God in this world, the very life of Christ in this world. As the Ethiopian is baptized, he begins to become a little more like Jesus. But at the same time, the Body of Christ (the Church) begins to change ever so slightly as it takes on the complexion, the character, and even the possible complications of including this newest member of the Church, an Ethiopian eunuch.

This grafting, this joining, this adding of members to Christ’s body still begins with baptism. Back in October, several of us gathered in the garden to baptize a baby whose birth was not at all certain. Once he was here, his parents very much wanted a baptism, but the virus was bad in their Brooklyn neighborhood and they weren’t sure how safety get from there to here. We worked out a garden baptism. We grafted little Samuel on to the Body of Christ. His family has come a couple of times since and they’ll be here when things are safer. But who knows what kind of beauty he will bring. We as the branches that enfold and support and shield and strengthen, and on that day, he became a part of the vine, and God has begun doing something new again in Samuel, and his family.

We could still go outside and look closely at the garden. We could see what God is doing out there, and hear the Gospel in that context. But with eyes of faith, we can see the same thing right here.

Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been busy gardening. People of faith all over have gardened—or not gardened. Some have done the equivalent of digging up the plants, putting them into the basement for safety, saying a prayer, and hoping for the best. I hope something grows, as well, once things are brought back into daylight. 

Others of us have experimented and gotten dirty.  Now I don’t want to get smug or proud, but I am grateful that you and the vestry have joined me in using the tools we have, digging in some new ways, and being open to what new practices, perspectives, and people God might graft onto this particular vine. Some of what we’ve tried has not always grown. God will continue to do some weeding and pruning. Of course—that’s part of the experience, part of the growth.

We’ve got a lot to learn with changes in climate and growth patterns. We will need some new tools.  And we always need more gardeners to help and invite and assist in God’s work of graceful grafting.

We can look around and see the variety and beauty of God’s gardening work, as God has grafted us on to his Church. Sometimes the graft takes beautifully, and sometimes it needs a little more care, but whatever the case, the scriptures today remind us that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and God will tend us and watch over us until we grow into the very perfection of his love. Thanks be to God.

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Christ the Good Shepherd

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a Gospel reading that reminds us of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  As far as sheep farming might be from some of us, there’s something almost archetypal about the idea of a shepherd as being strong, kind, watchful, pursuing the lost, binding up the wounded, eager to gather in more sheep (and goats, too.) One of the Church’s best children’s education programs is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, because its developer, steeped in the wisdom of the Montessori method, understood that very small children get the concept of a shepherd who loves them and calls them by name.

A loving shepherd empowers us to be loving and to share that love. We see that in our continued readings from the Acts of the Apostles, as Peter and the other disciples move about healing and preaching. They get into trouble, but they’re undeterred. They know the Good Shepherd and they know the Good Shepherd knows and loves them.

The simplicity of a child’s faith is in that classic poem by the English Romantic poet William Blake. Blake has a child ask,

Little Lamb who made thee
        Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
         Little Lamb who made thee
         Dost thou know who made thee?

I sometimes wish we lived in such a world of streams and meads in which everyone had clothing of delight, softness and safety. 

As I pray about the ongoing shootings and gun violence in our country—the shootings by crazy, disturbed individuals, as well as the shootings by police—I watch some of the British crime shows with wonder as I notice that most police do not carry weapons.  Not only does that mean there are fewer police shootings, but it also reminds us that the UK has fewer citizens who understand gun ownership as an extension of their identity.  Can’t we go back to easier days? Or as Rodney King asked—with the hopefulness of a child, “Can’t we all just get along?”

We know the answer is more complicated.

Psalm 23 reminds us that we sometimes walk in the valley of the shadow of death, that evil exists, and there will always be those “who trouble us,” enemies….nevertheless (and there’s faith in that word, nevertheless) THOU, O Good Shepherd, art with us.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus also is clear-eyed about the pasture.  Thieves and bandits try to climb over the fence. Strangers try to mislead. Some just want to kill and steal and destroy. There will be wolves, and hired hands who are unreliable. These are Jesus’s words, not the cynical notes of my faith. Jesus should know, after all, because he is the sacrificial lamb, who gives his own life for the clearing away of death and evil and injustice. By identifying as the victim, Jesus has turned the system inside-out.  Yet, nevertheless, Jesus calls us by name.

And what’s even better is that the folks we see and know as those within the fold are not even the half of it. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  We don’t know exactly who Jesus means—maybe it’s the Jews who have not understood his coming. Maybe it’s the foreigners. Maybe it’s the cynical or the doubtful, but whoever they are, Jesus’s comment seems to suggest that we never give up praying for others—for their conversion to love, for their healing and hope, and for their joining us in everlasting life.

Literature professors, poets, and people far smarter than me will say that for one to really understand William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” one also needs to read and keep in mind, the parallel poem, “The Tyger.”

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

In other words, how could a benevolent, loving God, a God who creates and loves little sheep, also be the creator of something as vicious, cold, and killing as a tiger?  What was God thinking? Was this a mistake? Where do we place evil in a world in which we insist on good?

It comes back to those shady characters Jesus mentions in the Gospel, doesn’t it?  This side of heaven, there will always be thieves, murderers, and swindlers.  But the Good Shepherd continues to lead, to love, and to call us by name.

If you recall the first stanza of Blake’s “The Lamb,” you recall the child asks the sheep, “Who made you?” In the second stanza, the child speaks with the wisdom of faith and assurance, answering their own question:

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake has two different poems to express the Christian dilemma of good and evil, of light and dark, of hatred and love existing in the same world. We are not to despair. We are never to give up.  But to keep listening and following our own name, as Jesus calls us. We’re called to keep working and praying for the conversion of the world, as the Good Shepherd has a lot of other sheep and much bigger pasture. (Our beloved Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park will be magnified by the thousands and millions in heaven.)

The choir sings the beautiful Bairstow paraphrase of Psalm 23 on our behalf a little later (but we’ll sing it ourselves before too long,)

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Heavenly Bodies: Christ’s & Our Own

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

St. Francis, the 12th century holy man and preacher, who confounded people in his day and in ours, had a difficult relationship with his own body. Like many religious, for most of his life, he privileged the life of the spirit—a relationship with God, a deep and steady prayer life, outreach and compassion with the poor, and in fact an identity with the poor—he valued that life over the tedious, boring, day-to-day maintenance of his own body. In fact, as St. Francis referred to all of creation as a sister or brother, he referred to his body as Brother Ass.  Brother Ass was like a mule or a donkey—necessary for getting work done, but stubborn, burdensome, and sometimes with a will of its own. The body, Brother Ass, for St. Francis, was to be endured.

Some think that when Francis was young and held as a prisoner of war for a time, he must have contracted malaria, which returned from time to time throughout his life. He had stomach problems and may have had an ulcer. He had eye problems that were given painful treatments that didn’t help. Add to this that Francis pushed himself, and was often emotionally isolated from the very community he had inspired.

One day, later in life, Francis was fussing about his body, Brother Ass. He asked a brother what he should do, and the young brother helped Francis see that Francis offered kindness, compassion, and mercy to all of creation, EXCEPT for his own body.  And yet, that body had given him the means to be of use to Christ in the first place. Shouldn’t he show his own body a little compassion? Francis heard these words as straight from God, so said to himself, “Cheer up Brother Body, and forgive me; for I will now gladly do as you please, and gladly hurry to relieve your complaints!”   (The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Ch. 160, FA:ED, Vol 2, p. 383.)

We give thanks for the Resurrection of the Body of Christ, and that means that we also should give thanks for the existence of our own bodies.

In the first reading we heard this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has just healed beggar who was disabled. But the people want to try to understand it, justify it, or explain it.  To them, Peter says, “Here is life renewed.” “Faith in [the name of Jesus Christ] his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” The healing power of the resurrection has found a home in this man, now able to walk around and praise God.

In the Gospel from Luke, Jesus again appears to his disciples. He breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, but when the disciples seem baffled by all of this, Jesus brings them back to earth by asking for food. As if to prove that he is more than a ghost or a spirit, Jesus is hungry and wants to eat with them. And so they eat fish right there. Jesus then explains that they are witnesses to all that Jesus has done and said, and are meant to carry on this work of healing and forgiving and renewing people in the love of God out of Jerusalem into the whole world. And they will be doing this with their bodies.

Some years when I reflect on this Gospel of Luke, I like to talk about how the Holy Spirit is given in this passage and how that works alongside the Spirit’s movement on Pentecost.  But this year, I hear the Spirit reminding me that Jesus took his body seriously, and we take ours seriously, as well.

One might think that during a pandemic, we would be hyper-focused on our bodies and doing all we can to avoid getting a virus.  But as we joke about the Covid-15 a lot of us have put on (the extra pounds through stress eating and worry and lack of movement), a lot of us spend increasing amounts of time interacting with people through screens.  Though we are communicating more than ever (and that has blessings) we should never lose sight that we are embodied and Christianity is an embodies faith.

Our eating and drinking together, our shaking hands and hugging—we have missed and we mourn. But let’s not pretend they’re not coming back. Of course they are. We can say things in silent proximity that are simply impossible to convey through a screen, an email, or a phone call. These are good substitutions when we can’t be together, but let’s never forget that they are substitutions.

At every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we remember how Jesus shared a meal with his disciples and transformed that meal by saying that in the blessing, the breaking, and the sharing, he was also sharing his body and blood with them. In Holy Communion, we share in Christ’s Body and Blood, and gain a bit of that Resurrection Spirit into our bodies.

Jesus healed and brought new life into the bodies around him.
St. Francis eventually came to show compassion to his body.
And we, too, are called to be good stewards of the bodies God has given us.

The point of this sermon is not that anyone would feel guilty about mistreating their body or feel shamed in any way.  But I hear God’s Spirit calling us to remember that we are given these miraculous bodies to learn from and to live with. How might we show compassion to ourselves? How might we take better care and be better stewards?  How might we invite God’s healing and helping power to make us stronger and more faithful?

The Collect of the Day invites reminds us of how the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread. May our eyes be opened, as well, so that we might behold the risen Lord and allow him to redeem our bodies, minds, and souls.  Amen.

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Doubt, Desire & Faith

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

People sometimes get frustrated with the Episcopal Church and the fact that our tradition offers a lot of room for interpretation.  Especially confused (and sometimes angered) are those coming from other traditions, in which doctrines and beliefs are more clearly defined. I think of some of the standard questions such as:

Do Episcopalians believe in the Real Presence of the Jesus in the Sacrament of Holy Communion?  Well–, many do, some don’t, and most probably don’t worry themselves too much about it.

At what age should children be baptized or begin receiving Communion?  It varies.

How many Sacraments are there, anyway?  Seven or just two?  Well, as our Catechism (way in the back of the Book of Common Prayer) puts it, there are “Two great sacraments” (Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist) and there are other “sacramental rites” which include confirmation, ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and unction.  “Although they are means of grace, they are not necessary for all persons in the same way that Baptism and the Eucharist are” (p. 860).

I know this kind of language drives some people crazy.  I also know that it makes our job a lot harder if we’re trying to explain our faith or our tradition.  But I’m grateful for the breadth and generosity of our tradition.  It means there’s room for me.  There’s room for you.  There’s room for just about everybody because God understands we come to faith differently.  God made us that way.

Some people’s faith depends upon signs. Others believe in Jesus without a sign. Some need miracles. Others don’t. Some have faith that is weak, some strong. Some have shallow faith, some have deep faith. These different kinds of faith can be seen especially when we look at the various reactions to the resurrection.

 On this second Sunday of Easter, as we continue to reflect on the resurrection and its meaning, we can notice where we are on the spectrum of faith and doubt, and we can be encouraged by the different ways the first followers of Jesus came to believe.

Think of those first witnesses and how they responded to Jesus:

Mary Magdalene had faith that took her to the tomb and she saw the risen Lord through her tears.

The two disciples were walking to Emmaus talked to a stranger.  Their faith led them to extend hospitality, and they saw the risen Lord in the breaking of bread.

Some of the other disciples were fishing on the Sea of Galilee. Their faith led them back to work, and they saw the risen Lord in the midst of their work, and when they reached land, he made them breakfast.

As we heard in today’s Gospel, when some of the disciples seemed to lose faith, they hid out in a locked room and tried to sort things out. But even there—or perhaps especially there in the midst of their fear and worry—the Risen Lord appeared to them, too.

For Thomas the Apostle, it wasn’t enough to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. These stories all sounded like wishing thinking, or people letting their emotions and hopes get the best of them. Thomas needed more.

And while we tend to describe Thomas as having a lack of faith—for Thomas, this simply IS his way of faith. It is a way that takes nothing for granted.  It’s a way that is willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward. In fact, it’s really Thomas’s DESIRE for faith that moves him forward.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus offers himself—the resurrected body still bearing the wounds. The story doesn’t tell us if Thomas actually touches the wounds. There is room for our imagination. Artists through the ages interpret this scene differently.  Some show Thomas actually poking his finger in the side of Jesus.  Others show a distance between Thomas and Jesus.  But that distance is important to remember.  It’s the same kind of distance as the one shown between God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  It doesn’t represent separation.  It represents movement toward the other.

What crosses the distance is desire, what bridges the gap, is God’s desire for us, and our desire for God.

Too often, I think we hide our desire—to desire shows vulnerability, need, and the admission that we’re not complete within ourselves.  It’s easier for us (individuals and churches) to show a veneer—doctrines, rules, regulations, barriers, and hurdles.  This is why so many people have made a distinction between what they perceive as “religion” (the rules and doctrines that confine and judge) as opposed to “spirituality” (an openness to creativity and curiosity about God.) At our best, the Episcopal way (especially) encourages both a religious practice and a spirituality that grows and changes over time.

Thomas Merton wrote a prayer that points to the space between us and God, the space in which we grow and move towards God.  His prayer asks,

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Like with Mary Magdalene, like with Thomas, our desire is enough.

The Luke version of the Passion contains a scene that should always be at the heart of  Christianity.  One of the criminals who is being crucified with Jesus asks him from the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus tells him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

It really is just that simple.  Christ is risen for us all and reveals himself to all who look for him, who hope for him, who desire him.

Christ is risen for the tearful. Christ is risen for the bold. He is risen for the dishonest and lazy, the broken and beyond repair.  Christ is risen for those who are afraid, and he is risen for those who doubt.  The Lord is risen for us all. Alleluia.

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Easter Day: Faith Through Fear

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

There’s a lot of fear in this Gospel.  Mary Magdalene and the other women are afraid they won’t be able to move the stone away from the entrance of the tomb where Jesus has been buried.  But then they see the stone already moved, and their fears change.  Stepping inside the cave-tomb, they see a young man—maybe an angel—and now they’re really scared. From him, they learn that Jesus is not there.  He has been raised and is going on ahead.  

The women stumble out of the tomb terrified, amazed, and fearful.  The scripture says that at first, “They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  But then an amazing thing happens, Mary Magdalene finds the other disciples and becomes the very first Christian preacher as she tells them what she has seen.  The other disciples don’t believe her, (They think she’s been smelling too many Easter lilies, or maybe she’s gotten into the poppies) but she keeps on. 

What’s happened to her fear?  Was it replaced by faith?  I don’t think so.  I think her faith surrounded her fear, the faithful fear and fearful faith commingled, and the two become an even more powerful witness to the risen Christ.

Throughout scripture people are confronted with angels, messengers from God, and on occasion, God himself, and each time the first words are “Do not be afraid.”  “Fear not.”  And so, on one hand, it’s clear that we’re not supposed to be full of fear, eaten up by it, paralyzed by it, defined by it.  

Sometimes FEAR can be that acronym some people use where F.E.A.R. represents Forget Everything and Run.

That’s one option. But if we think about the many times in scripture that God or an angel or Jesus says, “Fear not,” those words come in the midst of action that has already begun.  The person visited has NOT run away, but there’s STILL fear.  God says, “Don’t be afraid,” all the while, knowing, understanding, perhaps even sharing a little in our experience that even with faith, we may still have some fear. 

What this means, I think, is that God calls us not to be fearful, nor to be fear-less, but to be a little of both, to be fearsome.  

Fearsomeness is the quality of being able to cause fear, to instill fear, but it also carries with it a slight sense of one’s still being afraid. F.E.A.R. can also stand for Face Everything and Rise.

As a church, we’re called to be fearsome.  Even though so-called “organized religion” gets a lot of criticism, we can quietly and faithfully offer our experience.  In the face of corporate greed and economic amnesia, we can be speak out.  And if we aren’t heard at the ballot box, we can make the voice of faith heard at the cash register.  We can be fearsome, if we allow the Holy Spirit to ignite us.

As a parish, we’re called to be fearsome—to get more deeply involved in our community and city, to take on more creatively the issues that are on our front doorstep as well as on the other side of the world, and to try to be a parish that is open and welcoming to all, even when the souls that present themselves may not be exactly like us.

As individuals, we’re called to be fearsome.  Granted, I don’t sit at your desk and I don’t work with your colleagues, have your boss, or deal with neighbors, coworkers, inlaws, or family.  But I know this:  Fear can be a means of avoidance, and if we avoid too much of life, we’ll miss the miracles.   

In today’s New York Times, the Rev. Esau McCaulley articulates this idea of being fearsome as he ponders the place of faith and Easter as we move through the pandemic.  He writes

To listen to the plans of some, after the pandemic we are returning to a world of parties and rejoicing. This is true. Parties have their place. Let us not close all paths to happiness. But we are also returning to a world of hatred, cruelty, division and a thirst for power that was never quarantined. This period under pressure has freshly thrown into relief the fissures in the American experiment.

As we leave the tombs of quarantine, a return to normal would be a disaster unless we recognize that we are going back to a world desperately in need of healing. For me, the source of that healing is an empty tomb in Jerusalem. The work that Jesus left his followers to do includes showing compassion and forgiveness and contending for a just society. It involves the ever-present offer for all to begin again. The weight of this work fills me with a terrifying fear, especially in light of all those who have done great evil in his name. Who is worthy of such a task? Like the women, the scope of it leaves me too often with a stunned silence.  (“The Unsettling Power of Easter,” New York Times, April 4, 2021)

We’re called to be fearsome with the love of Christ.  This resurrected love that faces down death itself can help us in the face of all our fears.  Asking Jesus for help, to hold on to us in the face of fear, is the first step. Then, after the first or second step, when we’re scared again, we can ask him to speak to those fears, and move us a little further ahead. And on, we go.

This is the life of faith—not in opposition to fear, but moving through fear, just like we move through joy, and sadness, and gratitude, and heartbreak—even through death—until we, with angels and archangels, saints and martyrs, all those we have every known and loved, the holy and unholy of every age, and—when we, too, experience Resurrection.

Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

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Good Friday: Seeing through Darkness

Some of you are familiar with Evelyn Underhill who was an English writer on mysticism and the spiritual life, who died in 1941. More than being just a writer, she was also a practitioner, a person of deep prayer, and you feel the depth of her prayer through her writing.

In one place (The Light of Christ), she talks about how first appearances can be deceiving. She talks about how a friend might suggest you check out a particular church—it has beautiful stained glass windows, for instance. And so, you approach this church, but from the outside, all you can see are windows that look pretty much alike—they’re all sort of dull and dark, thick, and grubby. But then, as she describes it,

Then we open the door and go inside—leave the outer world, enter the inner world—and the universal light floods through the windows and bathes us in their colour and beauty and significance, shows us things of which we had never dreamed, a loveliness that lies beyond the fringe of speech.

She goes on to say that this is a little like our understanding of God. We cannot understand God from the outside, but understanding comes when we enter in.

Holy Trinity is a perfect place to begin to understand some of the mysteries of Good Friday. We are that kind of church from the outside—our windows look sort of ugly and uninteresting, until we come in, and then there’s a whole other world going on.

This day is like that. From the outside, it appears to be named incorrectly. After all, what is “good” about an innocent man, a prophet, and healer and teacher, being killed for no reason other than the fear and anxiety of the religious rulers of his day? But from the inside, from the standpoint of faith, we begin to understand that Jesus has given himself on the cross. What may appear on the outside as failure, will be turned into triumph.

The Good Friday perspective is one that can help us through the dark times. Especially when we only see darkness, when we don’t feel God’s presence, when our soul cries out “Why have you forsaken me?” a Good Friday perspective can remind us that if we go through, if we go deeply into, if we allow God to go with us, then we will move from outside, in and things will look different.

With eyes to see clearly, with faith to perceive the true nature of things, a Ninth century writer was able to sing praise on this day. Theodore of Studios wrote:

How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss. It is the wood on which the Lord, like a great warrior, was wounded in hands and feet and side, but healed thereby our wounds. A tree had destroyed us [in the Garden of Eden], a tree now brought us life.

May God give us the faith of Good Friday, faith to see beyond appearances, faith even to enter into death with Christ, so that we may be brought to life again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Maundy Thursday: Always Enough

The food writer Michael Pollan offers a number of rules or guidelines about eating. He lists them and develops them in his books, articles, and website. His overall rule is simple enough: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” But he gets more specific and offers guidance.

“Don’t eat anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”

“Don’t eat anything that won’t eventually rot,” he advises. “There are exceptions — honey — but as a rule, things like Twinkies that never go bad aren’t food,” Pollan says.

The food rule of Michael Pollan I’m thinking about tonight, and exploring theologically, is the one that says, “Always leave the table a little hungry.”

Now this is not advice that Pollan, or me, or anyone else would give to a person who is truly hungry. But it is advice shared across cultures. The Japanese suggest you stop eating when you’re 80 percent full. The Prophet Muhammad described a full belly as one that is 1/3 food, 1/3 liquid, and 1/3 air. When the French are hungry, they say “J’ai faim,” “I have hunger.” But when they’ve had enough, they don’t say, “I’m full,” but instead, “Je n’ai plus faim,” or “I have no more hunger”—which is a very different thing, isn’t it? (Food Rules, Rule 46.)

The Season of Lent is one in which many of us have given this a try—in fasting, in paying attention, by noticing some of our many addictions, cravings, and binges (whether fantasy or realized.)

The scriptures tonight are enough to make anyone hungry, but don’t they also invite us to leave some room? The Passover meal of the Jews is highly symbolic, and there are different foods involved. A friend mentioned to me that every Passover she has attended, everyone left stuffed—and I’m sure that’s true. But notice the original one. It’s a meal for a journey. It’s fast-food, to be eaten in a hurry, with your shoes on and your walking stick at the ready. Get rid of the left-overs and be ready to move. It’s just enough to get started, because the journey ahead—out of slavery in Egypt and eventually into a Promised Land—is going to be a long one. In the wilderness, the people will get hungry and they’ll be given manna. But remember manna? Michael Pollan would have been very pleased with manna because it had a shelf life of one day. It had to be consumed or it would become mealy. The lesson of the manna was that the faithful would look to God to provide, to God to fill their bellies, but also their hearts and minds and whole being.

Now, I know this might not be my most popular sermon—suggesting we leave the table a little hungry. My friends who enjoy Passover Meals won’t appreciate it, and I can tell you that whenever I go to an Easter buffet, I aim to get my money’s worth. But Pollan’s rule does point to our need for more, and our fear of having less. It invites us to notice when our mindset of scarcity that blinds us to God’s promise of abundance.

I think Judas Iscariot was terrified of scarcity. Remember how he resented Mary of Bethany’s offering of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus—how dare she waste that! Judas betrays Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Judas can’t begin to see the common good and bounty of Jesus’s presence, because he’s so worried about himself.

The scriptures tell us that with God, there will always be enough. Enough for me. Enough for you. Enough to share.

When Jesus gives the prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer, he includes that phrase, “give us today our daily bread.”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation where he writes about this phrase:

…At least some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; “give us today tomorrow’s bread”. . . Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father. And so … Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it’s very much our daily bread, it’s the food we need to keep going; but it’s also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven, at his table, at his banquet… (Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer)

Jesus says, “Look to God for the true bread from heaven. Look to God for the bread that comes down and gives life to the world.” And then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

There are several themes to Maundy Thursday. One has to do with Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet. In that we’re not washing each other’s feet this year, that aspect of the day, in some ways, is both emphasized and de-emphasized. But even when we include it, the washing to feet should not be disconnected from the meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, and the sharing of himself.

The way John describes it, the supper is going on, the drama around Judas is beginning to play out, and Jesus is talking with the disciples. Jesus interrupts the meal, it seems like, in order to wash the disciples’ feet, and then comes back to the table. He and continues talking, sharing, and encouraging. The bread of service, the bread of Jesus’s Body and Blood, and the Bread of Heaven are the same—broken, shared, and enjoyed. Like the story of the feeding of the thousands, the miracle of multiplication begins in the Last Supper, as the disciples eat, but stop short of becoming full. They know that Jesus is not finished with them yet. That God is not finished with them yet.

Last year, during Holy Week, we went without sharing the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. This year, many of us break bread together but are still painfully aware of those who join us spiritually—those at home, and those who have died over the last year. We have been hungry this year—too many in our community and the world have literally hungered for good. Too many continue to hunger for justice and fairness and decency among all people—in Minneapolis and in Manhattan. Many hunger for peace. Many hunger for healing.

As we eat, we receive what might seem like just a very little. But it is a foretaste, a promise from him who fills us with all that we need.

During Communion, the choir will sing words of St. Thomas Aquinas set to music by Olivier Messiaen.

O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given. Alleluia.

A pledge of future glory. The Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion—by whatever name we know it in our hearts—is food for the journey and a promise that there will always be more, for our journey with Christ through this life, and our journey with him through death and into eternal life.

Thanks be to God for this feast—which, even when spare, is more than enough.

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Exciting News for an April 1 Maundy Thursday

Episcopal Task Force Nudges Foot-Washing Towards a Third Sacrament

Due to the pandemic, we are not including foot-washing in this year’s Maundy Thursday service. But there is exciting news for the future. The Episcopal Liturgical Sub-Task Force on Reform and Renewal is suggesting the ancient rite of pedilavium (foot-washing) be considered a “sacramental” for a trial period of five years, after which, it will be regarded as a full sacrament along with Baptism and Holy Eucharist. Before long, we can wash feet regularly.

The chair of the task force explains, “When St. Paul writes, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ [Romans 10:15], he is talking about the Whole Church.  The Gospel moves forward through clean feet.” A Southern Episcopalian on the task force explained her delight that the new proposal takes scripture seriously. “Just as Jesus washed feet and told his disciples to do likewise,” said Tibia Stern, “We need to follow Jesus, even when it involves getting wet, stinky, and maybe downright gross.” Ms. Stern pointed to an unexpected benefit in his town, where the new liturgy has already gained a footing. “For the first time, we have something in common with the Primitive Baptists AND the Mennonites!”

Church historians enthusiastically support pedilavium, footnoting ancient sources. Dr. Elizabeth Corn, an orthopedic theologian with H.E.E.L. (Helping Episcopalians Explore the Liturgy) points to the 4th century liturgical practice in Milan, where Bishop (later Saint) Ambrose washed feet immediately after the Sacrament of Baptism.  Ambrose wrote

Come, then, Lord Jesus…Pour water into the basin, wash not only our feet but also the head and not only the body, but also the footsteps of the soul. I wish to put off all the filth of our frailty. Wash the steps of my mind that I may not sin again. Wash the heel of my soul, that I may be able to efface the curse, that I feel not the serpent’s bite on the foot of my soul, but as Thou Thyself hast bidden those who follow Thee, may tread on serpents and scorpions with uninjured foot.  (Of the Holy Spirit1.13)

Invoking the spirit of Ambrose, the task force suggests congregations might consider serving Ambrosia, the popular potluck salad, at Coffee Hour on Foot-Washing Sundays (though the cherry on top should be avoided in Lent).

As with other sacramental matters affecting the heart of the church, most bishops have declined to wade into the discussion, though several have drafted a new program called, “Plushtice.” The Plushtice Campaign offer plushness and justice at the same time, as it partners with Coptic Anglicans in Egyptian villages to produce unbleached, undyed cotton towels of high quality. This preserves the time-honored Episcopal tradition of supporting the poor while not sacrificing luxury.  Details of the plan will be announced at the Archbishop of Coventry’s Lambast Conference next summer. 

Additional guidelines on tiptoeing forward with the Sacramental of Foot-Washing include:

  1. Environmental Stewardship: Care should be taken regarding the quantity of water used and should, only in unusual circumstances, be recycled for use in the baptismal font.
  2. Hygiene: Foot-washing basins should be stored away from church kitchens and pantries to avoid being mistaken for oversized salad bowls.
  3. Economic Justice: Parishes should use this opportunity to support local nail salons, offering group coupons and gift certificates.  A pre-sacramental pedicure should not only be for the well-heeled.
  4. Evangelism: Congregations in warmer climates may use children’s wading pools and lawn sprinklers in developing their own foot-washing rituals, this being the latest way for the Episcopal Church to try to attract young families with children. Episcopal flipflops (shown below) make great pedilavium presents.
  5. Pastoral Care: Extra resources and counseling should be made available to any, who because of cultural or aesthetic pressure, suffer from a negative self-image or shyness regarding their feet.  
  6. Safety: While socks and hosiery are discouraged during foot-washing, latex socks, available from church supply companies, may be used.  Studies show latex socks to be at least 35 % effective in reducing the spread of toe fungus.

Scriptures offered by the Task Force include Exodus 3:5 (“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”), Psalm 119:105 (Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path,” Romans 10:5 (cited above), and of course, John 13, the Gospel for Maundy Thursday. 

A new litany based on the Footprints in the Sand poem features the moving congregational response, “Where I saw only one set of footprints, it was then that you carried me.” At a recent Celebration of Foot-Washing, task force members and guests were shocked when the Rt. Rev. Hugh Higharch burst into tears and cried inconsolably through the service. Collecting himself during the reception afterwards, he explained, Footprints in the Sand always reminds me of summer church camp at the beach. I look forward to sharing this beautiful gift of prayer with the Whole Church.”

A Happy April Fool’s Day to all!  

The practice of foot-washing in Milan and the quotation from Ambrose are legitimate.
Everything else is fictional . . . for now.

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Palm Sunday: Darkness (for now)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

In most years, during Holy Week at Holy Trinity, usually on Wednesday, we offer a service called Tenebrae. “Tenebrae” comes from the Latin word for “shadows” or “darkness.” Through the service of prayers, reading, and music, candles are gradually extinguished. Light decreases until the space is total darkness. And then, by tradition, there’s a loud noise. The “strepitus,” or great noise, is a clang, a bash, a rumble that represents several things related to the crucifixion—the disciples running out of the Garden of Gethsemane, the tearing of the Temple curtain in Jerusalem, and the earthquake reported in the Gospel of Matthew.

After noise, there in the dark, and there is only silence.

But the service of Tenebrae doesn’t end with the dark silence. After a time, a small light appears—usually a single, flickering flame of a candle. Sometimes it’s the last candle of those extinguished earlier and instead of being put out, it has simple been hidden behind the altar. This single, small light represents the light of Christ—the light that is dimmed, that is hidden, that seems to completely disappear on Good Friday.

I think about the silence and darkness of Tenebrae when I read Mark’s Passion, St. Mark’s version of the Crucifixion that we just heard.

You may recall that each of the Gospels offers a slightly different point of view—of Jesus, and also of his Crucifixion. In Luke’s Gospel there’s a lot more attention given to the political and theological aspects. Matthew presents the crucifixion and resurrection as one event, leaving no doubt that Jesus is the King of Kings. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is a champion, totally in control, the “true light who shines in the darkness.”

But in Mark’s Gospel, the version we heard today, it sounds like darkness has indeed overcome the light. Jesus is the innocent victim.

The great preacher & commentator Fred Craddock points out that in Mark’s Gospel, the verbs themselves show that all the action is “done to” Jesus. Jesus is betrayed and let down by his friends, the disciples. Jesus is arrested and taken away. His friends and disciples desert him. Jesus is taken to the high priest. He is interrogated, spit upon, and beaten. Jesus is bound and led away further. When Pilate tries to cut a deal with the religious leaders and release a prisoner, Jesus is passed over for Barabbas, the murderer. Jesus is handed over to others, and he is beaten again. He is made to carry his cross. He is brought to Golgotha. He is crucified.

Darkness comes over the whole land. Darkness seems to overtake the whole world.

Mark’s version of the Crucifixion is not an easy one to hear, but it’s an important one for us to hear because it’s so real. It’s true. And too many—close at home and far away in our world know what that darkness is like.

Just as we might wish we could pretend we’re at a beach in Florida and the pandemic is totally gone, we hear of people still getting sick, still suffering from strange effects of COVID-19, and some are still dying.  Over the last year, there have been some significant deaths in our church family and our extended church family. We see the results of colonialism and foreign policies of exploitation as we watch desperate people try to make it to the US border.  We see continued and increasing violence against women, people of color, and more and more shootings by the angry and disturbed. 

Darkness is real. The shadows touch our lives with sickness and disease, with addiction and mental illness. We like to think we have something to do with our own health, that we can stay in the light, we can move toward the light, if we try hard enough. Often, we can, for a while—but when someone young gets COVID or some other strange disease or nasty form of cancer, suddenly the light goes out and we there is darkness, uninvited and unexplained. Where is God when we can’t see him or feel him or in any way apprehend him?

Well, I go back to that liturgy of Tenebrae for a reminder.

One essential part of Tenebrae is the reading of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often sung as the antiphon, “Christus factus est,” which our choir sings today. But they are words are prayed even in the darkness. The words are prayed especially in the darkness because they emerge from the shadows:

Christ became obedient for us unto death,
even to the death, death on the cross.
Therefore God exalted Him and gave Him a name
which is above all names.

There is something in that mystery, something in that movement of humility, self-offering, of suffering-with, that gives pierces the darkness, as though a knife were put through a black shroud, flooding the place with light. God doesn’t let the light go out even though we might not see it, just like at night the sun is still shining—it’s just on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite versions of the Tenebrae service follows the normal pattern of readings, music, and decreasing light. The candles are extinguished one by one. And as the lights go out, there’s a sadness that falls over the space. It is unspecific and large. It seems to include all of our pain, all of our heartache, all of our questioning. But then, as one become uncomfortable in this deep darkness, and one tries to adjust one’s eyes, there’s the faintest hint of light. One wonders if it’s in the imagination. But then it seems to be moving and approaching from behind. Gradually, slowly, silently… from way in the very back of the church, a little child comes, carrying a single candle. As the child moves through the space shadows dance all over the place, no longer threatening but animated with hope, with joy, with expectation.

The light shines in the darkness! It never went out. It just changed. It just seemed to go away. But here it is, faint but full; small but strong; vulnerable, yet eternal.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to seek the light. We are invited to slow down, to set aside the calendar, and our “to do” list. For a few days, we might even put on hold our endless list of “shoulds.” Whether we spend time in this church, another church, or online with lots of churches, Holy Week invites us to notice the dark places in our lives, the shades and shadows and allow God to be there with us.

Even if we can’t feel the warmth of the light, even if we can’t get a glimpse of it yet, the faith of the Church assures us that “What has come into being in [Christ] was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:3-5)

Whether we heard the words at Christmas or at Easter, their truth shows us the way: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not, has not, and will not overcome it.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sacred Service

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

Every once in a while I meet someone who is curious about our church.  Sometimes they’re just being polite and other times, I think they’re serious when they ask, “What time is your service?”  They mean what time do we worship.  But whenever I’m asked that question, I’m tempted to answer it in a way that might sound sarcastic or flippant, but would nonetheless be true.  “What time is our service?”  “Right now,” I would want to say.  This could be said because no matter when someone asks me that question, some member of our congregation, some part of the Body of Christ that (at some time or another) gathers under the name “Holy Trinity” is actively engaged in service.  They’re praying.  Or they’re feeding.  Or they’re giving.  Or they’re planning.  And through our service, the church becomes the Body of Christ in the world, whether people fill this room or not. That has been especially true during the pandemic.

Though we do it all the time, I don’t know that we often really think about service or its blessings.  It’s just a part of what we do.  It’s a part of our public discourse, so that there are service days and service hours that have to be fulfilled. 

The scriptures today invite us to encounter God in our service.

In our Gospel, we enter the story as there’s a lot of excitement in Jerusalem.  People are pouring into the city for Passover.  As people pour into Jerusalem, some of the foreigners ask to see Jesus. Word has spread, and they want to know how they, too, can come to know God, how they, too, can be a part of this Jesus movement that seems to be healing and helping and giving people hope. 

When they meet him, Jesus lays it all out.  He says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor,” Jesus promises.  There is blessing, but it’s going to get rough along the way.  He goes on to say, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” And he explains a simple rule of nature, that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” 

Jesus is talking about his own sacrifice, the sacrifice for us that makes for our salvation. But he’s also talking about the little sacrifices, the perhaps even-minute sacrifices we can make, we are called to make, on behalf of one another. 

There are a lot of different ways for us to serve. Though we’ve been restricted in the ways we serve over the last year, many of you still manage to serve others. You call. You arrange vaccines. You volunteer in the garden, or with the Saturday dinner, or on committees and councils of the church. And that’s just within the church. Others of you serve the community, your buildings, schools, and neighborhoods. Some serve in our hospitals and clinics. Others serve our city and country.

But there are times when we forget the power that is let loose through service.

Some of you know the spiritual classic called The Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978). In it, the Quaker author Richard Foster talks about the spiritual disciplines we have either practiced or heard of: such things as give the season of Lent its substance sometimes: disciplines like fasting, prayer, meditation, confession, … and service.  

I don’t often think of service as a discipline—that is, something to be developed, to be practiced, something that we can get better at, and grow into. But Foster does, and he also names particular kinds of service.

One kind, he calls “hidden service.” It’s the kind of service toward another person in which the other person is the only other one to know—except for God, that is. Over time, there will grow within you a quality that others will begin to sense, a quality of a deeper love, a new compassion, almost a slight aura. People will notice that you are different. 

Richard Foster tells a story through which he says he learned a whole new aspect of service. He explains that he was in the final, most hectic week of finishing his doctoral dissertation. The phone rang, and it was a friend who needed a ride in order to run some errand. Foster didn’t want to do it. He couldn’t see how he might possible spare the time. But reluctantly, he agreed (inwardly worrying about the precious time he was losing by helping this friend.) The friend needed a ride to several places, it turned out, and so, while the friend was in the grocery store, Foster waited in the car, pulling out a book that he had brought along.

It was Dietrich Bonheoffer’s little book, “Life Together.” Foster opened the book to where he had stopped reading before, and he read these words, “The . . . service one should perform for another in a Christian community is active helpfulness. This means, initially, simple assistance in trifling, external matters. There is a multitude of these things wherever people live together. Nobody is too good for the meanest service. [And] One who worries about the loss of time . . . is usually taking the importance of his own career too solemnly.”

Ouch.   In other words, the service in small ways matters. 

Foster suggests our trying other forms of service, trying them on as disciplines.  Some might sound surprising. He mentions the service of “guarding the reputation of others.” This is what some have called simply “charity.” It’s what Saint Paul is talking about when he says, “speak evil of no one.” It’s what the 9th Commandment means by “not bearing false witness against one’s neighbor.” What a service that would be, if we could hold our tongues more often, if we could truly guard the reputation of others.

Another is the service of being served, of being gracious, of living out thanks. When Jesus began to wash the feet of his disciples, Peter objected. He couldn’t understand it, but Jesus was invited them to be served, so that they could pass that gift on to others.

There’s the service of common courtesy. The service of hospitality. The service of listening. And finally, there’s the service illustrated by Philip and Andrew in today’s Gospel: the service of sharing the Word of Life, the love of Christ with others.

Jesus says, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” If we offer ourselves to one another in ordinary, mundane, and everyday ways—as well as in the more public ways, much fruit comes of it. 

We talk about service in the context of religion. That word, “religion,” comes from the Latin word, religare, which means “to tie, or to bind” If we are religious at all, we are tied to God, bound to God; but also tied to one another, bound together, connected. “Anyone who serves me, God will honor,” Jesus says. We become connected to God through service. Being a servant of someone means that there is a bond, we are tied to that person in some way. Being a servant of Christ means being tied to him.

As we continue to grow into a religious community, a community in which we share ties that bind in love, I pray that we (all of us) might deepen our own sense of service. Service to Holy Trinity, service to this community and the world, service to one another, and through it all—service to God. 

In the words of the prayer sometimes used after Communion, “Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart;”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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