Crossing Out Fear

Jeremiah by Michelangelo_Buonarroti_027A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Jeremiah 20:7-13Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20Romans 6:1b-11, and Matthew 10:24-39

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The other day I saw a little girl who was wearing a headband made up of Guatemalan “worry dolls.” You may have seen these little figures—they’re tiny, usually less than an inch tall, and often they come 5 or 6 little figures in one small box or bag. The idea is that before going to bed at night, you tell a worry or fear to each of the little dolls, then put them back in their place. Then you’ll be able to sleep better.

I looked at the little girl with the headband and I wondered what she might possibly have to worry about? What would she be telling her worry dolls?

But then, I guess we have worries and fears, no matter what age. A child might worry about a pet, or a friend, or a parent or grandparent. A teenager worries about what other people think, about grades and appearance, about keeping up with expectations and progressing toward the future. And adults have new fears and worries every day—if it’s not increasing rent, debt, or turmoil at work, it might be issues around aging, or taking care of a relative, or any number of things. We notice how economic trends are often based on fear, and we know all too well how politics can be motivated around fear.  We live in fearful times, but when we look at the record of faith, other people, too have wrestled with fear.

The reading we heard from Jeremiah was filled with fear, though it doesn’t come right out and use that word. Jeremiah feels like he’s been made a fool of. He feels like God has set him up and left him looking like an idiot. He’s hurt and he’s angry at God, but he’s also deeply, deeply, deeply in love with God. He fears that God might have turned away. He fears that people will get the best of him, that what people say at their most cynical, might actually be true. They whisper the worst: “Terror is all around! Let’s get him while he’s down, he’s been criticizing us and saying it’s from God. But God is ignoring him and has left him all alone.”  Jeremiah worries this might be true.

In this section of scripture, I think we have a long period of time condensed. This complicated love triangle between Jeremiah and God and the people was probably played out over a much longer time. Built up over a long time, Jeremiah’s fears don’t go away immediately. They don’t simply vanish with a few wise words from a friend, the latest book, the perfect prayer, or even the most elaborate religious ritual.

Instead, fear is slowly eroded by faith, by faith that might even feel like blind trust, at times.  Fear fades sometimes through putting one’s trust outside oneself—in others, and in one’s higher power (whether that be some notion of God, or a sense of community, or perhaps even just in one friend upon whom one can really trust.)

Jeremiah eventually moves through his fear to a faith that can feel the strength of God.  And so he sings; he praises; he feels the deliverance and salvation of God.

In today’s Gospel Jesus warns the disciples about the times ahead when they will feel like Jeremiah—when they’ll feel misunderstood and forgotten, passed over even by God. Just as Jeremiah was rejected by his people, the disciples of Jesus are going to come into conflict.  Sometimes that conflict will be with strangers, and sometimes it will be with family and loved ones.

Here, Jesus is not offering justification for arguing with family.  He’s not trying to makes us feel better about disagreements or fights among family where there needs to be confession and forgiveness.  And he’s not encouraging us to make problems or to use religion to belittle or to distance. But Jesus is suggesting that sometimes in relationships, in families, in churches, in denominations, in religious communions— taking up one’s cross can lead into conflict. But Jesus shows us how “taking up our cross” – when it is a cross of love and self-sacrifice – helps move through fear.

It’s often pointed out that the cross has both a vertical and horizontal axis. The vertical one connects us with God. It reminds us that sometimes when the fear sets in, the way to deal with it comes from deep within, as God reinforces some secret reserve within us that we perhaps didn’t even know we had. We can carry fear straight to God and allow God to work on it.

But then there’s also the horizontal axis of the cross, the stretching out, the reaching out. That involves the Body of Christ, the church, one another. The part of the cross that stretches out involves all of those who God sends our way. We become the Body of Christ for one another through simple acts of kindness and remembrance (like sending a note, or agreeing to pray for someone) or through more dramatic ways of showing solidarity, friendship and love.

The cross stretches through the life of this parish. People call each other. People care for each other.  People look out for each other. When people are afraid of tangible things than can be addressed, we connect with Health Advocates for Older People, or Search and Care, or another community organization that helps us confront fear by breaking it down into small problems to be addressed and solved.

The storms and tornadoes over the last few days reminded me of a story from a few years ago.  You may recall the tragedy of a tornado ripping through a Boy Scout camp in Iowa.  Four boys were killed when a chimney they were hiding under collapsed in the storm, but all the other kids made it through.  Their story recounts how as the storms and winds were picking up around the camp, the scouts went about their preparations, just like they had practiced. There had to have been almost unimaginable fear. I’m sure they were terrified. But several of the boys did what they could to lessen the fears of others. One 14-year-old, Zack Jessen, yelled for his friends to duck under the table. He covered the head of another boy with his own body, and those boys were saved.

Fear is funny that way—when we share it, when we share in it, it lessens. It doesn’t always go away completely. And sometimes bad things still happen. But holding the hand of another, praying together, serving together—is love—the kind of love that “casts out all fear.”

Overcoming fear is a big part of the spirit of this last Sunday in June, when close to 2 million people will be watching, marching, and participating in numerous ways in this year’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride parade.  Many of the people marching are doing so only after spending years overcoming their fear.  Many of those watching will still be negotiating fear—fear of being fired for being gay, fear of losing friends, fear of losing family, fear of violence.  Many people of faith will also be in the parade today as a reminder and invitation that God’s love can cast out all fear. As the well-known meal program with the so-appropriate name reminds us, “God’s love delivers.”  It delivers every time.

Sometimes when we are afraid, the only thing we can do is to say our prayers, sort of duck for cover, and wait on God to show himself. We live into that vertical dimension of the cross. But at other times, we live into the horizontal direction. We can lean on each other, we can call on each other, and we can be the Body of Christ to one another. We can be like the disciples were to one another—to share support and strength and nurture and love.

Thanks be to God that, in the words of 1 John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

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

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The Right Kind of Christian Pride

Image 6-24-17 at 7.42 AMThe other week, our church’s Facebook page invited parishioners and friends to join with others from the Diocese of New York for this Sunday’s parade demonstrating support for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Community.  The event is commonly referred to as the “Pride March.”  A priest I know tried to be clever by posting a response to our invitation, suggesting that there was something odd about having a parade “celebrating one of the seven deadly sins.”  While his comment was unhelpful and showed a real pastoral ignorance, it also underscored for me just how easy it is for the Church to silence, shove aside, and ignore groups of people by suggesting that they are sinful whenever they assert their humanity.

The heart of our faith involves our knowing and celebrating that we are made in God’s image, we are redeemed by Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice, and we are renewed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  We should be proud to be Christians.

Of course, pride in the extreme can be a problem. Whenever it becomes a “love of one’s own excellence” pride can blind us to the needs of others and to the reality of our own humanity.  But just as humility sometimes is misunderstood as silence and letting others walk all over us, pride is sometimes too quickly seen as negative.

True humility and Christian pride come together in faithful discipleship.  When Jesus called the little children to himself, don’t you suppose they felt an appropriate pride?  When Jesus said to the many on the mount, “blessed are you…” , don’t you imagine them just about bursting with pride?  And as Jesus welcomed women, and outcasts, and those who had been thrown down and out by society, don’t you think they might have felt pride for the first time in their lives?

In St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians there is a masterful speech to the puffed up, self-congratulatory, egomaniacal in his midst.  He uses irony to say, “You want boasting?  I’ll show you boasting…” And then Paul lets loose.  He maked fun of the various things people boast about, the roots of their pride.  He concludes, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Cor. 11).

When we boast of weakness, we show solidarity with the poor, the children, the aged, the sick, the outcast, the misunderstood… and that’s Christian pride.  Through such pride, we can grow to understand ourselves to be accepted by God as good, blessed, and capable of great holiness. Through vulnerable confidence, Christ brings us to an appropriate place of prideful humility, a kind of “pride-ility,” if you will.  Paul echoes the earlier words of Jeremiah the prophet who hears God say, “Let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the LORD: I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight” (Jer. 9:24).

I invite you to join me and others this Sunday in celebrating LGBT Pride.  Marching as a priest in a clerical collar, under the banner of my church and diocese, I will be encouraging others to come to know Jesus Christ as God’s humility and humanity among us—and that makes me very proud, indeed.

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Corpus Christi

bread
A sermon for the Sunday commemorating the Holy Eucharist, The Body and Blood of Christ: Corpus Christi.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 34, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 16-17, and John 6:47-58.

Listen to the sermon HERE

The other day I was making plans to meet a parishioner for coffee.  We agreed that we’d meet at the coffee shop, “Le Pain Quotidien.”  Just as I thought our plans were set and before hanging up the phone, my friend added, “Ok, see you on Second Ave.”  I quickly called him back.  “Second Avenue?  I thought we were meeting on Lexington.”  We both looked online, realized the confusion, and settled our meeting place.  We laughed as we saw the massive opportunity for missing each other—we could have met on 1st Avenue, Fifth Avenue, or at any of the other many locations of that restaurant.  “Pain Quotidien,” is of course French for “Daily Bread.”

The irony was not lost of me that I encounter “Pain Quotidian” or Daily Bread every day and pass right by.  But if that’s true for my walking by the restaurant chain, it’s even truer for the Daily Bread provided by God in other ways.  I don’t always notice.  I’m not always grateful.

We pray for daily bread whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, and on this Sunday when we meditate on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Holy Communion, the Eucharist) we can explore how the Sacrament of Communion is also an answer to our prayer for the bread that sustains— not just for today, but for tomorrow, and the next day as well.

The Old Testament Lesson for today recalls the time when the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness, they became tired and irritable, and God fed them with manna. In the words of the psalmist, “[God] rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven. So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.” (Psalm 78:24-25).

But the manna was only for the day. It was daily manna and needed to be consumed or it would spoil. If they left it out it became wormy. If it remained in the sun, it melted. This is because the manna was food, but it was more than food. Manna was meant to be consumed with faith. It took faith to rely upon the Lord to lead through the wilderness. It took faith to go to sleep each night trusting that there would be manna for the morrow. Perhaps it’s from that old, ancient story that the prayer began to be formed that would pray for daily manna, or daily bread.

Biblical scholars sometimes point out that the Greek in Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for the bread for tomorrow. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation as he writes

Rivers of ink have been spilt over the exact meaning of “give us this day our daily bread”, because the word that’s used in the Greek is a very, very strange one that you hardly find anywhere else.

It probably means daily, it probably means the stuff we need to survive, but at least some people in the early church understood it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; “give us today tomorrow’s bread”.

And they’ve thought that might mean give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God. 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 that connects for a lot of Christians with Holy Communion. Of course, because 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, as the gospels put it. Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “The one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that [one] may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever.”

By taking into ourselves the Body of Christ, we become one with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion happens to us. Communion overtakes us. Communion is God moving toward us and inviting us closer. Communion is our reaching out toward one another and even reaching beyond the church into the world.

Communion happens all the time and all over the place.  We invite others to meet Christ at the altar when we worship.  But we also invite others to experience Christ offered himself and receiving all who come, in other ways, as well—on Tuesdays with the senior lunch, on Saturdays with the community dinner, most nights of the week in the shelter.  We offer “Bread for Tomorrow” through the simplicity of our hospitality, allowing strangers and neighbors alike to rest in the garden and perhaps learn something of the God who comes to us in the “beauty of holiness.” But whether we offer literal food, or spiritual food, the food of friendship, support, encouragement, or prayer– We move with invitation, inviting others to “taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who trust in him!” (Psalm 34:8)

Sometimes the bread for which we pray and long for is less tangible than food and drink, or even a sacrament.  Sometimes we hunger and thirst for love, companionship, health, work, peace… all these hopes can be like something for which we have a taste but are a long way away from.  The ancient Israelites prayed for the bread that would feed their bodies, but also the bread that would feed their souls and their ambitions and their loves.  The friends and followers of Jesus understood his presence as feeding them, but they also prayed for the bread of tomorrow as they longed for his presence in prayer and the Holy Spirit. And we do the same, filled with confidence that just as surely as God satisfied those before us, God fills us with what we need.

Bread for today is a gift. Bread for tomorrow is a promise. We are called to live with hope and with faith for whatever tomorrow brings.  The Holy Eucharist allows us to practice receiving God, apprehending God, noticing God, hearing God, and feeling God moving in us and around us.

Jesus promises, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” May we grow in the faith and love of Christ, especially as we encounter him in the Holy Eucharist.

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

 

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Trinity Sunday

holy-trinity-icon-smOn Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017, The Church of the Holy Trinity offered one worship service so that everyone could be together for the visitation of the Rt. Rev. Mary D. Glasspool, Assistant Bishop of New York.  The music included gifts of our Sunday Evening Contemporary musicians as well as our Holy Trinity Choir.

Bishop Glasspool presided and preached.  The bishop also confirmed five, received one, and reaffirmed the faith of two parishioners. After a reception with the congregation, the bishop had lunch with the vestry at the rectory.

Listen to the entire worship service HERE.

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Being Pentecostal

Keith Haring GraphicA sermon for the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21Psalm 104:25-35, 371 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23

Listen to the sermon HERE.

When I was in high school, there were two girls in our classes who always wore long skirts. Their hair was very long—it seemed like they never cut it, but either wore it tied back, or fastened in a bun of some kind. They never wore makeup, and everyone knew (or my friends, at least knew) that Lisa and Lori were from a Pentecostal family. For a while, I thought that these two girls and their families were what Pentecostal looked like. Until I became friends with Rachel.

Rachel’s father was a Pentecostal minister, but Rachel wore makeup, was a cheerleader at high school, and her whole family seemed like most other people, except that their church was a called a Church of God, and their belief was that one is baptized by water, but one is also baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that second baptism causes one to speak in tongues. Others are given the gift of interpreting tongues. And so, knowing Rachel and her family, who were very modern but also spoke in tongues—I thought they were what Pentecostals looked like.

That word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.

The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like my friends I mentioned in the beginning of this sermon.

But there are other spiritual gifts. In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture. There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.

As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but I have been witness to that gift being manifest through languages that others don’t understand. Instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish, like the Word of God we hear about in scripture “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly).

Being Pentecostal looks like a lot of us….
Trinity Cares
Volunteers in HTNC
Music program
People who pray for others…

On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. The spirit stirs and sings. The spirit crashes and calms. The spirit tears down what is old, or broken, or dead in order to make room for new life:for energy, hope, and resurrection. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us be faithful Pentecostals.

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Inviting the Spirit

Fiery Heart

A homily for Evensong on the Eve of Pentecost, June 3, 2017.  The readings are Exodus 19:1-8, 16-20 and 1 Peter 2:2-10.

Listen to the homily HERE.

The late comedian and actor Robin Williams was also an Episcopalian and during the height of the David Letterman show and the nightly listing of the “top ten things” for this or that, Robin Williams compiled a list he called, “The Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian.”  On his list, number 6 says simply “Pew aerobics.”  We sit, we stand, we kneel.

There is a lot of up and down.

To some extent our “pew aerobics” are intended to go along with our words and our intentions.  The Book of Common Prayer is very careful to suggest postures, not to control people in worship, but because of the idea that posture can promote or encourage particular feelings.

God’s people stand for joy, in full gratitude that God has blessed us to such an extent as to be born in the world as one of us, to become incarnate, and to honor the material world.

We sometimes kneel when we’re sorry—for ourselves or for others.  We kneel when we feel small and need to ask for care or guidance or direction.

And we sit to listen or to be in community.  Sometimes we sit when we’re worn out and don’t have the energy or physical ability to do anything else.

So there’s a lot of up and down to our posture, just as there’s a lot of up and down in our lives—times to celebrate and times to despair.

The up and down nature of things also pertains to God, as people have tried to get their minds around God.  Almost every religion somehow imagines the divinity as being “up” and the opposite of divinity as being “down.”

Our first reading from scripture includes this idea in a way that many of us have probably felt.  Moses meets God in the mountains.  High up, with a perspective that can see miles away, with the air a little thinner and cleaner.  High on a mountain, one can surely meet God.

The Church has just celebrated the Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in which we have heard stories, prayed prayers, and sung music about Christ going “up.” And in fact, the anthem the choir sings in just a few minutes underscores this point.

And yet, even as the anthem quotes Psalm 47, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout,” the anthem continues by reminding us of other psalms, especially Psalm 24:, “Life up your heads, O gates, and let the King of Glory in.”

In the anthem, as in our worship, as in our lives, there’s a tension between locating God—that Higher Power, that Source of All Being, that “something” that is BEYOND, while at the same time, being somehow “WITHIN.”

In the Christian tradition, we hear Jesus say again and again in the Gospels, “Don’t look for the kingdom of God over there, or far away.  The Kingdom of God (God’s fullest presence) is already among you.  Look within yourself.  Look at your neighbor.

We gather on the Eve of Pentecost, that day in which the early followers of Jesus saw and felt God’s Spirit in a radically new way. Pentecost brings many messages and, in fact, we have a whole season of Sundays to reflect on what it means that the full Spirit of God lives among us and within us, but especially around the Day of Pentecost, I think it’s helpful to recall that the Spirit of God comes whenever called.

God’s Spirit may not show up exactly the way we imagine—we’ll hear tomorrow how those early followers of Jesus were blown away by the Spirit’s presence—it was nothing like what they were expecting.  But God comes when invited, when called, when invoked.

The Second reading from scripture that we heard comes from St. Peter who tries to remind his audience (and us) that we are God’s beloved.  God has created each one of us not as lifeless rocks to be thrown away or ignored, but as “living stones,” spiritual bodies—in God’s eyes capable, precious, and beautiful.

The Gifts of the Spirit are ours for the asking.  God is ours for the asking. Perhaps we ask with words. Perhaps we ask with our bodies.  Perhaps we ask in silence.  Perhaps we ask with music.

At the end of our Evensong this afternoon, we’ll sing the wonderful old hymn, “Come down, O Love divine.”  The familiar tune is by Ralph Vaughan Williams but the words are by Richard Frederick Littledale, who was an Anglican priest who was deeply affected by the English Pre-Raphaelites.  He joined many in idealizing much of the medieval Church and piety and loved the words of the Bianca da Siena, a 14th century Italian mystic.  “Come down, O Love Divine,” invites God into our hearts, to comfort, to burn away whatever is extra or needs to go, and to warm our hearts so that a flame of love can burn within us.

Though the images of God’s being up or down might help us to think about our own place in creation, and gain a new perspective, may we always remember that God is neither up or down, in or out, but always and everywhere as close as our breath—if only we ask.

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

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Prayer Ascending

AscensionA sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, May 28, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, and John 17:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On Thursday, the Church celebrated Ascension Day, the day, 40 days after the Resurrection of Jesus, that is described by the Book of Acts.  Jesus, after talking with his disciples, is lifted up into a cloud. When he has vanished, two men in white robes stand there and say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11.

This phrase, “Why do you stand there looking for Jesus?” becomes a phrase throughout the liturgy for Ascension Day. In churches where the day is celebrated with a full solemn Mass, the music echoes this question. In our own liturgy, the first reading asks this question, and our worship asks it of us:  Where do we look for Jesus?

The Gospel we just heard comes from John, as Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for the life ahead, for life without him. Jesus knows that their faith will be tested. It will be hard to keep faith in his teachings when he is gone. And so Jesus leaves gives his disciples several tremendous gifts.

He gives the gift of his body and blood through the mysteries of the sacraments.

He gives his Holy Spirit, which we will celebrate especially next Sunday with the Feast of Pentecost.

And Jesus gives his disciples, and all who follow in their way (including us) the gift of prayer.

It is this third gift, the gift of prayer, that I want to focus on today.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and friends whom he loves. He asks God to protect the disciples and for “those who will believe through the word.” Notice that he doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through his followers that the world can be changed—but he does ask God to protect us from evil, to keep an eye on us, to look out for us, to keep us close.

Jesus prays for us, and this means everything. It means that there is a constant link between us and God, even when we might feel like we haven’t really done our part, or when we feel like we might have messed up that link. That Jesus prays for us means that when we have a tough decision to make, it means we don’t make it alone—because he’s praying for us and with us. It means that even as we try to figure out what it means to be a person of faith and integrity in relationships, at work, in social settings… Jesus prays for us, and is pulling for us to figure it out, and make our way through.

Jesus prays for us and it’s his love that carries the weight of the prayer. It’s his love for us that keeps that prayer in the presence of the Father. When we add our love, then there’s even more in the conversation, and in the exchange of prayer—the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between—that we grow in relationship with the Holy Trinity.

Margaret Guenther was a wonder priest and spiritual director who died last year.  She had been a lay person in this parish and then was ordained from here.  She taught at General Seminary and was a great friend to many.  In one of her books, she writes about prayer as a conversation:

A good conversation is like a dance. The partners are aware of each other, attuned to each other, sensitive to nuances in tempo and rhythm. A good conversation with a friend—in contrast to idle chitchat with an acquaintance—allows space for pauses. There is no need to fill every minute, for there is comfort in the intimacy of shared silence. A good conversation is generous: each partner brings the gift of willing attentiveness. [And] listening is an important and as dynamic as speaking” (The Practice of Prayer, p. 20).

Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves. But sometimes our prayers life becomes a little stagnant. We get into habits and miss some of the conversation God might be trying to have with us. One way to try praying more, or differently, is to adjust the kind of prayers we make. ACTS is often used as an acronym for remembers some of the types of prayer.

A stands for adoration. Adoration can happen with words or with in silence. We can adore with posture, as we kneel or lie prostrate, or simply open our hands to God. Adoration of God is like sitting in the sun and simply feeling the warmth, allowing the light to reflect on us and in us. Adoration helps us move out of ourselves and more into God.

C stands for confession. And confession is not a repeated rehearsal ad infinitum of things done and left undone. Confession speaks the truth and then lets go, confident that God has heard our prayer and is already working on us in forgiveness. If you confess and can’t let go—that’s a good time to see a priest or a spiritual advisor and perhaps try the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confession, (as can be found in our Prayer Book beginning on page 446.)

T stands for thanksgiving. God doesn’t need thank you notes. But God blesses even further our recognition that we are gifted, that life is a gift, that friends and family are gifts, that all the stuff we fill our lives with are gifts loaned to us. Prayers of thanksgiving are said, sung, lived out, and spread around (as we show thanksgiving by helping others who are less fortunate.)

And S stands for supplication, asking outright (including prayers for others and prayers for ourselves.) Madonna (the rock star, not the Mother of God) once said something that has a lot of truth for one’s prayer life. She said, “Most people never get what they want in life—because they never ask for it.” In prayer, we ask God for what we want—even if we don’t know for sure whether it’s a part of God’s will. God will work out the details, but God can only work with us when we’re able to be honest.

Jesus prays for us and with us, giving us courage to ask for what we want and enact prayerfully what God wants.

That question from the two angels in the Book of Acts still hangs in the room, but I think we can answer it. “Why do we stand here looking for Jesus?” “Well, we don’t,” we might respond. We continue to enjoy his presence and power—through the sacraments, with the Holy Spirit, and in the continued experience of prayer—the prayers we pray, and the prayers that are prayed for us and in us. Thanks be to God for the gift and conversation of prayer.

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

 

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God with Skin On

Large group of people in the cross shape.
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017. The lectionary readings are Acts 17:22-31Psalm 66:7-181 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s scriptures remind me of an old preacher’s story about a little girl who can’t get to sleep. She knocks on the door of her parents’ room and says, “I can’t sleep.” One parent gets up, goes with the little girl child back to her room, gets her back into bed, and tries to offer reassurance and comfort. The parent says, “You know that we love you, right?” “Yes,” nods the child. “And you know that God loves you, right?” “Yes,” again, says the little girl.  “And you know that God will be right here with you, watching over you all night long. You know that, too, don’t you?” The little girl says yes, and smiles as the parent kisses her good night and turns out the light.

A few minutes later, there’s a knock on the parents’ door. “Yes?” they ask.  The little girl explains, “I know God is with me all night long. But can I still sleep with you? Right now, I need God with skin on.”

“God with skin on” is the God I worship and serve, the God we celebrate and praise in this place, the God of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses and Miriam, the God of David and Bathsheba, the God of Mary and Joseph who became incarnate—who was made flesh—in order to live and walk and love and die and rise again for us. Ours is a God with skin on.

In our first lesson, from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul interacts with some sophisticated people. He’s in Athens and has come to the Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill). It was a great place of meeting in Athens. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another. And while Paul respects his audience, and takes seriously their various beliefs, he nonetheless articulates his own view. Even more powerfully, he spells out his belief borne out of his own experience.

Paul says, “As I went through your city, saw an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’” “Well, I’m here to tell you,” says Paul, that “what you worship as unknown, I can proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he is Lord of heaven and earth. God doesn’t live in shrines made by human hands, and is not served by human hands. God doesn’t need anything, but rather, it is God who has given to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Paul goes on to quote a saying that seems to have been known by everyone in Athens, “For we too are his offspring.” Since we are God’s offspring, there’s a connection we’re born with, we’re created in God’s image. We are flesh and blood, of divine design, consecrated, made holy, made new by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and made new every day that we awaken with faith in him.

Jesus is God with skin on. And faith in Jesus Christ is an embodied faith. Faith is dead if it just exists in prayers that are said, or sung, or imagined. Faith only lives when it is embodied, when it is enacted. Though we don’t work our way into heaven, or gets God’s attention or blessing by working especially hard or holy; as St. James says, “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

“God with skin on” is a way of explaining what the church means by “incarnation.”  It’s faith becoming flesh, but also faith becoming material, becoming real—whatever that might look like in our own lives.  We read in scripture that “Faith without works, is dead.”  But often, I think many (and many of us, perhaps) work with faith every day, but we don’t always notice it, or make much of it.

Too often, we tend to separate in our minds the things we do and think and say when we’re at church, from the things we do and say and think during the week at work. But if your body shows up for work, you are taking Christ there. If your heart is in the office, then a sanctified and redeemed soul is also at your desk.

Dorothy Sayers put it well when she complained that work and religion had, too much, become separate departments in life.

The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter [she complained] is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables. Church, by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? [Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (London: Methuen, 1947), 58-59, quoted in Armand Larive, After Sunday: A Theology of Work (New York: Continuum, 2004), 64.]

If you work for the city or in the legal profession, let justice and the vision of God be a part of your work. If you teach, let the compassion and humor of Jesus be in your words and teaching. If you drive, then do so with purpose and clarity. If you write or edit, then do it with honesty and integrity. If you deal with people in any way, try to see them as fellow sisters and brothers made in the image of God. If you volunteer, then offer your service in gratitude for all God has done for you.

Whether we make tables, or decision; whether we cook up a meal, or cook up a business deal, we are the Body of Christ moving and shaping the world. We—as we move, and pray, and struggle, and heal, and fall, and are raised up again—we are called to be “God with skin on.”

Frederick Buechner, the preacher and writer, reminds us that, “Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), and incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here. And what is saved is not some diaphanous distillation of our bodies and our earth, but our bodies and our earth themselves.” [Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: a seeker’s ABC (NY: Harper & Row, 1972) 43]

Jesus said to his disciples, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live….They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me… and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Christ reveals himself to us and through us to the world.  Graced by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, may we show the risen Christ to one another and to the world. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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Christ our Dwelling Place

 

Frances Perkins

Frances Perkins, Woman of Faith and Secretary of Labor (1933-1945)

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 14,2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel includes a passage that often gives a word of hope and assurance, especially in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. It’s a roadmap for living, a roadmap for THIS life.  As such, it’s a roadmap that involves a choice, a place, and what might be called a “posse.”

“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sometimes sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We can choose whether to have troubled hearts, or untroubled hearts. This suggests that we’re not always spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he lets God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr.

Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.

Jesus talks about a place for us. Like Tony sings to Maria in West Side Story, like Virginia Woolf longed for in her essay, like Carrie Underwood sings today,—there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.

When Jesus says “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in Florida. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.

When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a posse.

We might think of a “posse” as a bunch of people brought together in a Western to go and catch the bad guys, or might know “posse’ as more of a street term.  In fact, The Urban Dictionary defines posse as “your crew, your homies, a group of friends, people who may or may not have your back.” In Medieval Latin, the posse comitatus meant literally, the “power of the county.” And this is how it came to refer to a common law idea of a group of people who were given authority to catch criminals.

But those early apostles were also called together as a posse.  They were given authority by the Holy Spirit. Every time the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how they might get there, what do they should do about this or that— each time, Jesus answers with relationship.

He says: You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another.

Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have their posse—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. In other words, “we’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world.”

On this day that’s celebrated as Mothers’ Day in our country, I think of someone who understood today’s Gospel and followed the Way, the Truth, and the Light in a complicated world.  Yesterday, in the Episcopal Church, we commemorated a woman named Frances Perkins.  Perkins was a New Yorker, educated at Mt. Holyoke and Columbia, and especially when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire happened in 1911, killing 145 workers, Frances Perkins was especially compelled to advocate for workers.  Her passion caught the attention of the newly President Franklin Roosevelt, who asked her to consider being her Secretary of Labor.

Frances had a choice to make.  Should she stay in NY and do what she could?  Should she devote more time to her husband and her daughter (both of whom, today, would probably be diagnosed with manic depression)?  Or should she go forward.

As she moved to Washington, France Perkins found a church home at St. James Church, Capitol Hill.  There, she would attend Morning Prayer and have coffee with the rector afterwards.  It is said that many of her ideas were prayed over and then talked about in the rectory—ideas like a minimum wage for workers, a legal age to keep children out of the workplace, the program that would become Social Security, and other programs that changed the lives of many.

And finally, as lonely as it must have been to be the first woman cabinet member in Washington, Frances Perkins knew she was surrounded by other people of faith—praying for her, praying with her.

Trouble, difficulty, and challenge all come our way.  That’s a part of life, even when we have faith.  But we always have a choice on how to respond.  We have place that is a presence.  And we have a posse.

W.H. Auden says it so beautifully when he writes in the chorus of his Christmas Oratorio

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

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

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The Gate that’s Always Open

garden gateA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, “Good Shepherd Sunday,” May 7, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:42-47Psalm 231 Peter 2:19-25, and John 10:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This Sunday is often nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because of the images that come from today’s Gospel. Images of shepherd and sheep run throughout the scripture readings.

The first reading we heard this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, talks about the diet of those early sheep, if we are allowed to refer to those first followers of Jesus as “sheep.” They fed on a steady stream of teaching, fellowship, prayers, and the ritual breaking of bread, recalling how Christ broke bread with his disciples. Those first Christians didn’t keep the good stuff for themselves, either. They went to the temple, they shared their food with one another and those who came their way, earning goodwill among all. So, it’s no wonder that “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

The second reading also echoes the theme as it equates the life lived before Christ as being one of “going astray like sheep.” Before understanding the depth of God’s love—before seeing Christ as God-with-us—Peter says we were like sheep. We were busy darting this way and that, going toward anything that looked like food or fun, losing our way, not really caring, and not even noticing when sometimes we simply fell off a cliff, in pursuit of something that caught our eye. But now, Peter says, now we have returned to the shepherd, we’ve come home to ever-forgiving, ever-renewing love. We’ve come back to the shepherd, to the guardian of our souls.

It is Good Shepherd Sunday. But if we look closely at our gospel, the part that identifies Jesus with the shepherd doesn’t appear in the section we read. It’s in John 10:11 that Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” In the section of the Gospel for today, Jesus talks more about how one reaches the shepherd, the sheepfold, the place of welcome and refuge, the place of safety. And the way one reaches this place is through a gate.

In today’s Gospel, Christ speaks of himself as the gate. “I am the gate for the sheep … I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

The gate is the way, the opening. The gate involves a choice—one can either go through it and see where it leads, or one can try to get more information about what it opens to. Or one can simply stand back, decide not to even try to enter. Standing back perhaps afraid or feeling unworthy, like the invitation hasn’t yet arrives.

We regard and navigate the gates of faith in various ways. Sometimes we see a gate ahead, but it’s so overgrown with other things that it won’t really open. The gate needs to be cleaned off in order to work. Maybe vines and weeds have gotten in the way. Maybe the hinges are shot or the latch is tricky. To enter the gate of Christ, sometimes our image of Christ has been overgrown with old ideas, with bad theology, with the wounds of personal experience. All kinds of things can obscure who Christ wants to be for us, and so Christ as gate to heaven, gate to God, is not easily opened.

At other times, we might sense the gate ahead, but try our own way instead. We might try to cut through the brush all alone, or scale the wall, or get around through some other method. We do this with the gate that is Christ, as well.

I have great respect for other religions and other paths of spirituality, but there is a unique opening Christ provides. God-in-human-form is not at the heart of Judaism or Islam or Buddhism. Those and other ways can be road maps, but as Jesus says in today’s Gospel, there is something rare and individual about seeking God through Jesus Christ.

The gate that is Christ is not a wide-open, always easily entered thoroughfare. It can be narrow, as he says when he tells the disciples, ““Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14).

In baptism, we open the gate that is Christ together and help the baby, or child, or adult step through. That movement of repentance and falling into the arms of God, and in so doing, moving through the gate of Christ—that movement sets a pattern that stays in us all our life. We simply recall that way, that movement, and let God pull us through—again and again and again.

We can sometimes get confused that WE are the gate by imagining that the work of salvation is ours to accomplish—ours to build the church, ours to accomplish justice, ours to create love. And while we are the Body of Christ in the world (his arms, his legs, his mouth and his heart), it is through the love of God, the power of God that we’re able to accomplish anything. And so we remember that Christ is the gate, and no ourselves.

And finally, the gate that is Christ can seem too difficult at times. It can look too heavy to move, too complicated to operate, too much of a different time or era. But if we walk up closer, if we team up with others and accept their help, the gate begins to open. We do this by praying with others and learning from them. We do this by studying with others. We do this by working and serving with others. The gate can appear to be too challenging in some way, but if we walk up close, if we step through, we find it to be easy.
Though of you who have studied Jerusalem or visited there may know that the Old City is a city of gates.

Eleven in all, today seven of these great gates and entrances are still open. One of the most famous is the so-called Golden Gate, sometimes referred to in scripture as the Beautiful Gate. This one is in the eastern wall of the Temple Mount just across from the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives.  Tradition says that after Jesus had visited Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, he used the Golden Gate. It was this gate through which Jesus must have entered the city on Palm Sunday and the one through which he probably left the city to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was the Golden Gate that Jesus passed through forty days after the Resurrection and near the site from which we left this earth in the vision of the Ascension.

In the book of Zechariah, the prophet tells that the messiah will come through the Mount of Olives, through the Golden Gate. So it was partly to put a stop such hopes that in the 16th century, Suleiman the Magnificent,   sealed up the Golden Gate. And it stays sealed today.

The closed-up, sealed Golden Gate of Jerusalem is a powerful symbol of what our faith should NOT be. We don’t gather in a museum, as beautiful and historic as our churches may be. We don’t muse over archeology and find our meaning there. We don’t live in hopes for a messiah or even in the stories of where Jesus may have walked (or may not have.)

Instead, we’re called to engage a living Christ, to move through a living gate that changes, that opens in different ways, that calls and compels us to new faith each day.

May the risen Christ continue to make himself known to us, to open himself to us, and lead us to new faithfulness.

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

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