Bearing Witness

hildegards saintsA sermon for July 15, 2018, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Amos 7:7-15Psalm 85:8-13Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At yesterday’s wedding, here in the church, the congregation came through beautifully on what is one of my favorite parts of the wedding ceremony.  At the section near the beginning, called, “The Declaration of Consent,” the bride and the groom make promises to one another. This is where the language of “love, comfort, honor, and keep in sickness and in health,” comes in.  But then, in the Prayer Book liturgy, the officiant asks the whole congregation, “will all of you witnesses these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”  And the congregation thunders, “WE WILL!”  (If that sounds familiar, it’s because we do a very similar thing at every baptism when the congregation is asked to support those being baptized in their life in Christ. Again the assembly answers “WE WILL!”)

If there is a wedding rehearsal, I also instruct the wedding party to really say this part loudly.  If the congregation is too meek, I’ve repeated the question before, and added, “Once more, please, … with feeling this time…”

I want to hear people say We Will support the couple, because of the power of bearing witness.

The Greek word for witness is martys, or martyr in English.  A martyr, among people of faith, is often portrayed as one who is persecuted or who dies for his or her faith.  But in its truest sense, a Christian martyr is simply one who bears witness to Jesus Christ.

Today’s scriptures are not the cheeriest.  They speak of difficulty and demand—but they also speak of deep and abiding faith.

The Old Testament lesson gives us a brief profile of the prophet Amos.  Amos has the hard job of speaking out against power, in this case against King Jeroboam.  The king’s own priest gets wind of it, tells the king, and they put out the word that Amos is all about “fake prophecy.” The religious power structure of the day (which has cozied up to the governmental power structure) turns against him.  “Go preach and prophesy somewhere else,” they tell Amos.  But Amos says, I’m not in this to make a name for myself.  I’m no threat to you.  I’m a migrant farm worker.   Amos basically says, “Look, I’m nobody special.  But God called me and told me to step up and tell the truth.”

The story of Amos reminds us that being a witness to truth is easy.  And of course, the example from our Gospel comes down to us in history not only from scripture but from theatre by Oscar Wilde and opera by Richard Strauss.

John the Baptist DID speak the truth, and we have the awful story that is all too current—literally in other parts of the world, but just as real in our world as people lose job, reputation, friend, retirement, social standing—when they speak hard truth.  With King Herod, power prevails, in the short run.  But that’s the essential thing for us to remember. The powerful appear to win, but they only have the advantage for now.

The Letter to the Ephesians gives an eye into God’s long-run plan.  God has a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  That’s a huge plan.  It means that in Christ everything will find its completion and fulfillment.  In Christ, everything will grow to its right purpose and ending—event those who are cut short in this life.

Everything and everyone is redeemed and perfected, brought to completion in God’s good love.

That sort of hope doesn’t allow us to rest content with injustice in this world, assured that life in the next will be better.  Instead, hope in God compels us to live forward, in the open, in the light.  It’s that hope in which we live, toward which we point… that hope to which we bear witness.

I have a cousin who lives in a small town near Tampa, Florida.  We were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, and I asked him how things were in his community.  He laughed and he said he thought he might have to find a new barber.  When I asked, “Why?” he explained what happened the other Saturday morning.

It’s a chain of a hair place where men and women both get their hair cut.  A woman was almost done getting her haircut in the next chair and she was talking to her stylist about all the Muslims who had moved into her neighborhood.  “They’re everywhere,” she said, “and I’m afraid to even go outside. You never know if your next-door neighbor is a terrorist or not….”  My cousin said that he had heard similar comments while the lady had been getting her hair done, but he decided that it was time to say something.  “You know,” he said in his slow, Southern accent. “If you look at history, everybody has done their fair share of violence and terrorism.  Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus… people are people, and even though most people are good, there are always a few who make the headlines. You can’t just all Muslims by what you see in the news.”

My cousin’s barber stopped cutting his hair for a minute, exchanged looks with the other stylist, and then continued.  The lady in the next chair grew red in the face and didn’t say another word–but left soon thereafter.  The stylist who had been cutting her hair went outside for a smoke and several of the other customers who were in the shop went outside to join her. My cousin said that he though his barber might have rushed the haircut.

My cousin might find another barber, but in that one, quiet moment in the barbershop, he spoke up and spoke the truth.  Whatever conversation was brewing next to him, he at least, stopped it for a moment and took the energy out of it.  There might be consequences but there also might be the possibility of surprise, of encounter with someone who might point to a larger issue, and might suggest a more complicated picture than first imagined.

We are called to bear witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes that means saying “no, thank you” at work, in social situations, or at the voting booths.  Sometimes it means protesting and witnessing in public ways, and other times might mean a quieter approach.  Bearing witness always and everywhere includes prayer, that God would reveal God’s truth, that faithful people everywhere might be strengthened, and that God’s reign would enfold and embrace all.

Our prayer for the day asks that God might “grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”  With the saints and martyrs, with the mothers and fathers, with the sophisticated and the plainspoken, may we also bear witness.

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

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God in the Garden

Wosczyk Wedding

A homily offered at the marriage of Lauren E. Kennedy and Matthew H. Wosczyk on July 14, 2018 at The Church of the Holy Trinity.  The Gospel was Matthew 5:1-10. 

Every once in a while, I meet someone who finds out that I’m a priest and is polite and respectful about what I spend my time doing. But the person will say something along the lines of, “you know, I’ve always felt like I can know God just as well—or better—walking in the woods, sailing on the water, or working in the garden.” I normally surprise such a person by agreeing with them, but then I ask a question.  “What do you do,” I wonder, “when a storm comes?  Where is God for you, then?”

At that point, I usually realize that I’ve done it again. I’ve spoiled a perfectly innocuous conversation by bringing theology into it.

Good things can happen in a garden.  The story of creation itself begins in a garden as God creates people and animals and plants of all kinds, and with each, God steps back and proclaims it all Good. The Song of Solomon uses garden imagery to represent creation, but also in a kind of lush and somewhat erotic way: all that blooms and smells suggests the love between two people, which is just a hint of the love God has for each of us.  Jesus often goes into a garden to pray, to be quiet, to listen for God’s voice, and to learn—as he then shares lessons with others about the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the winds, and the waves. The scripture I just read, known as The Beatitudes, takes place on a hill, probably a lush one, with grass and trees and perhaps water in view.

Gardens are places where one can meet God, for sure, places where the beauty and truth of the Beatitudes seem self-evident.  Until the storm comes.

But faith in God helps us even when the storms come.   Remember there was a storm, of sorts, in that original garden, symbolized by the serpent, Satan, the accuser who is like that little voice inside our heads that always doubts, that always accuses, that tries to ruin every picnic.  But God shows up and promises always to love Adam and Eve—no matter what.

Jesus preaches and prays in gardens, but recall also that on the night before his death, he’s arrested in a garden.  It’s his faith and his connection with God that reminds him that no matter what kind of storm may come—whether the gardens of this world seem to be torn to shreds and every beautiful thing trampled upon—God still IS.  God still is Love.  And God’s love continues forever.

It is no surprise that Lauren and Matt’s wedding follows a garden theme.  Enjoy the flowers. Enjoy the smells, and sounds, and tastes, and the presence of love all around.  But also, never forget that God tends all gardens, and even in the darkness, even when things are tough, even when we feel alone or afraid or like God is busy pulling weeds elsewhere—return to the garden and wait for God.  God will appear and will enfold you in love.

The weeds will grow.  The pests will annoy.  There may be times of drought or what feels like a flood.  But God has grown your love and will tend it with loving care for ever and ever.

Blessings to you, Matt and Lauren; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Giving thanks for the Life of Michael K. Lawlor (1934-2018)

 

all-shall-be-wellI should begin by saying that though Mike has known this church in various capacities over the years, I didn’t know him.  But I wish I had.

I’ve gotten to know a bit about him from all of you and from talking to others, and so I have come to admire the man who always kept learning, always demanded more of himself, never stopped reading, and drawing, and creating, and helping, and loving.

Mike had that gift that makes one successful in advertising—that gift of being able to find interest in everything and everyone.  Not in a surface way, but in a way that sees, understands, and hears.

As one person has written to me, “Mike was one of those rare men capable of seeing the other side, of respecting another’s view—and of changing his mind. He could compromise. He could apologize. He could forgive.”

The scriptures today both point beyond their current circumstances.  In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah is trying to inspire a whole nation. Things are going to get better, Isaiah says.  And then, Isaiah becomes an artist and paints a picture of a whole world beyond, a place in the future, close to God.  It’s a place of continual feasting.  A friend of mine says that her view of heaven is a place where you can drink as much as you want without getting drunk and you can eat everything in sight without adding a calorie!  That’s a little of the view of Isaiah—a place of perfect health where tears are wiped away and life awakens new each day.

In the Gospel of John we hear the words of Jesus saying, “Don’t worry. All shall be well.  I’ve going ahead of you to prepare the way and so when you’re ready, the way will be clear, and good, and true.

That little phrase, “All shall be well” (especially in Episcopal and other Anglican churches) is a kind of hyperlink to the life, faith, and words of a medieval holy woman named Julian of Norwich.  Scholars think that Julian probably lost her son and her husband in a plague, and so she committed her life to service in the Church of St. Julian in Norwich.  She began a life of prayer and before long, people began to come to her for advice and wisdom.  She became a kind of spiritual guide.

She received a vision from God and she wrote down two versions of that vision—a vision a little like our scriptures today—a vision in which God assures Julian that love prevails. Love wins.  Love is never defeated.

Julian of Norwich takes to God her deepest question:  Why is there sin?  And more specifically, why has there been sin in my life? Why did I do that, say that, think that, go down that road, etc, etc, etc.  Julian writes about this and says,

… Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’  These words were said most tenderly, showing no manner of blame to me nor to any who shall be saved. (Showings, Long Text, Chp. 27)

Mike knew in this life what it meant to “come to,” to wake up to a new possibilities—new ideas, new friends, new ways of being of service and in community.  In another story of Jesus’, the famous story of the Prodigal son, when the young, hell-raising son returns home to his parents, poor, broken, defeated, and at his bottom; the scripture says that the prodigal “come to himself.”  He “came to.”

And that gets us back to what heaven might be. I think of heaven as a place in which we come to ourselves and we come to our Higher Power in a way that is a little like someone turning the lights on in a dark room.  We’re not afraid. We’re not startled.  But we’re quietly surprised at what we.  Heaven is a kind of “Ohhhhhh! 😊  I had no idea!”    We see, say, and breath relief as all questions are answered, all rough places made smooth, all resentments dissolved, all shortcomings completed—we come fully to ourselves, which is to say, we come face to face with our Creator and our Creator’s highest, most loving intentions for each of us.

Ann Lewin is a British writer and poet who reflects on those words of Julian,
“All shall be well….”

She must have said that
sometimes through gritted teeth.
Surely she knew the moments
when fear gnaws at trust,
the future loses shape,

The courage that says
all shall be well
doesn’t mean feeling no fear,
but facing it, trusting
God will not let go.

All shall be well
doesn’t deny present experience
but roots it deep
in the faithfulness of God,
whose will and gift is life”.

Let us give thanks that we have all been touched by the life of Mike Lawlor. With faith, let us give thanks that he has come to himself and to his God in light and love.  And may we live with hope and faith and great gratitude.  Amen.

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Developing a Sense of Faith

bears at tea detailA sermon for July 8, 2018, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 2:1-5Psalm 1232 Corinthians 12:2-10, and Mark 6:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE

A friend sent me a funny cartoon the other day.  It’s from a comic strip called “Rhymes with Orange” and the cartoon showed two bears having a summer picnic.  Both were sipping from cups and there was a teapot between them on the blanket.  One bear says to the other, “What delicious tea!” and the other bear explains, “It’s hibiscus and honey infused with garbage and compost scraps.”

Bears are known for their sense of smell, but summer can activate our senses as well.  The sights, the smells, the tastes, the feelings, the sounds.  As advanced as humankind seems to be and seems to be becoming, we really are usually people of our senses, aren’t we? When we’re cooking, we go by smell and sight to determine if something is cooked. When we plant in the ground, we look for shoots or sprouts to know whether something is, in fact growing. When someone promises to undertake a certain task or project, we wait and we listen and we watch to see what will happen. We look for evidence.

But when it comes to our relationship with God, so often, we’re called to live by another sense, or by something beyond sense—we’re called to live by faith.  Like a parent teaching a child to walk, it can feel like God is urging us, teaching us, pulling us up so that (as St. Paul puts it) we can learn to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel is called upon again and again to walk by faith, to believe that God is leading him and is showing the way. In today’s reading, Ezekiel is warned that there are going to be lots of people who will not get it. They won’t understand. They will try to see, but their eyes will fail them. They will try to hear, but their ears will be of no use. But, God says, “if you’re true to yourself, and true to the person I’ve called you to be, then they will know one thing: a prophet has been among them.” So don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed, just keep praying and moving and being faithful.

Jesus has the same problem in many places as he preaches and teaches and heals. In today’s Gospel he runs into local opposition. The very people who know him best cannot reconcile the Son of Mary with the Son of God. It’s doesn’t compute. It’s doesn’t flow. It can’t be charted out and explained and rationalized and proven. To perceive Jesus as the Christ, to receive Jesus as the Son of God, come to redeem us and live in us and be with us through death and into everlasting life— this takes faith.

In the Fourth Century, women and men left the cities and went into the desert to look for God.  These desert mothers and fathers and those who have taken matters of the Spirit seriously ever since have prayed for a balance in the senses so that faith might be developed more strongly. There is a tradition in some places of maintaining “custody of the eyes” so that one’s gaze might be directed more upon God. There is the tradition of fasting, so that one’s hunger would be less for carbohydrates and more for Christ. There is the tradition of silence so that the inner voice of God’s Holy Spirit might be heard. Christian ascetics take seriously this spiritual training of the senses—the training, itself being a kind of faith—so that a deeper faith and reliance upon God might be developed and sustained.

There are lots of ways of developing our sense of faith, but it all begins with asking God for help.  Asking—no matter how you picture God, no matter whether you really believe in God, no matter whether you’re struggling to find a God who is different from the caricature-god you might have been told about, growing up— whoever or whatever “God” is for you, begin the way of faith by asking. In the Christian tradition, we look to Jesus to show us the way, so Christ becomes the way we focus our request for help, for direction, for strength, for clarity, for love.

The old question of which comes first: the chicken or the egg has an analogous one arising from today’s scriptures. Which really comes first? Faith or evidence of faith? Faith or mighty works? “Jesus could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” It’s as though somehow their unbelief, their lack of believing, their disbelief, and their skepticism prevented them from seeing or receiving any miracle that Jesus might do among them.

Whether it’s through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take time this summer to practice training our senses, and to include in that an openness to developing a deeper sense of faith.  May the Holy Spirit develop within us the kind of faith that leads us through loving trust; that allows God to work wonders, make miracles and do mighty works.

 

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Remembering Jackie Albert (1922-2018)

Christmas 2016

Christmas Day 2016

Thoughts for the Memorial Service on July 7, 2018 for longtime parishioner Jackie Albert, who served on the altar guild at Holy Trinity for over 60 years. The Gospel is John 14:1-6.

The Gospel we have just read is from the New Revised Standard Version, an update of an update of the King James Bible.  In the King James Bible, verse 2 is famously phrased “In my father’s house there are many mansions …”

If that is the case, I imagine Jackie approaching heaven, being pointed to the mansions and saying something like, “Don’t you have anything smaller?”

Jackie was a small lady. And in some ways, Jackie lived what might be regarded as a “small” life.  But that would be misleading.  In fact, Jackie was always moving with a crowd.

In this life, she moved with a whole lot of people.  She wouldn’t go far without a former student coming up to her and saying hello.  Parents of former students would stop her in the street to thank her.  And even if Jackie were walking down the street alone, she carried with her the friends and family from the Yorkville neighborhood and beyond.  In her prayers, she carried even more people with her—so many that if we thought about it, it would seem amazing for such a small person to hold such weight.  Except, she held on to us all very lightly. She held other people—their stories, their fears, their worries, their joys, their dreams—but she held us all in God’s presence, and she knew that God always does the heavy lifting.

For some years now, Jackie not only moved with a crowd from the past, but also with a crowd in the future—those so many of her friends who died to this world but have risen to new life. When I met Jackie, about two and a half years ago, I was always confused when she talked about her friends, the ladies from church, many of whom attended the 8 AM worship service and some of who worked with her on altar guild.  I knew that her husband Jimmy had died years ago, but still, he was very much a part of her stories. And when Jackie spoke of Frances, Lillian, Cecilia, or Elsie, I had to think for a minute whether the person were living or dead.

Christians believe in the Communion of Saints, and we understand this Communion to be a living community of all those who have died and risen again to new life in Christ.

As Walt Whitman puts it so beautifully,

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. (Song of Myself)

Many of our local saints are gathered especially in that corner of the church, the Columbarium, where the ashes of the beloved dead are interred. Some might find our life with the dead-who-are-alive-again a little disrespectful.  We usually keep a piano over there, and on many Sunday mornings, the choir sits over there—from that part of the church come some of the most beautiful sounds known in Christianity—from chant to motets, to anthems to hymns, and everything in-between. We serenade our saints, and perhaps a few of them sing along.

On Sunday evenings when we have our Community Eucharist up here, around the altar, our fellowship time, our coffee time, is spent over here. We set up a table, wheel in the coffee, and enjoy each other—all in the presence of our saints.

Four mornings a week, we offer Morning Prayer in the Memorial Chapel and then, as with every Sunday and Wednesday, as people walk by the Columbarium, we pay our respects.  We remember. We say hello. We update and ask for advice. We give thanks and we pray.

In just a few minutes, we will inter earthly remains of Jackie Albert.  We will miss her accessibility and warmth, her gently correcting us when we set up for worship, and her gracefully presiding over every Sunday morning’s “Third Sacrament” (after Baptism and Eucharist, there was always Breakfast.)

But she is still close by.  She is fully part of the Communion of Saints now—praying for us, as always. Encouraging us, as always. And loving us, as always.

Let us pray.

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy  Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

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Asking for Help

jairus-daughterA sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018.  The scripture readings are Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24Psalm 302 Corinthians 8:7-15, and Mark 5:21-43

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The other day, several of the Merricats-Castle preschool kids were in the garden with their parents. One little girl was exploring every corner, looking at the flowers, climbing on the bench, playing with her friend. But at one point, something she was playing with seemed to go into the bushes. Not quite sure what to do about it, she looked over at her mother and yelled, “Help!” Her mother stopped her conversation, went over, and helped solve the little girl’s problem.

As I watched the little girl ask for help easily and naturally, I wondered, “At what age do we stop doing that?” When do we begin to learn that it’s NOT ok to ask for help or that we should do everything ourselves? How often are we like that little girl—needing help, perhaps wanting help—and yet, we don’t ask?

Today’s Gospel introduces us to someone who does ask for help. But in order to ask for help, he must have overcome a lot of internal and external resistance. Jairus is a leader in the synagogue. He’s well known and probably successful in whatever he does. He’s someone people look up to, the sort of person you’d want running stewardship or chairing a mission project. He gets things done (and sometimes that means doing them yourself if you want them done right.) He is probably responsible and organized and runs a tight meeting.

But suddenly, with his little girl sick, he’s out of his field of expertise. He can’t control, manage, or direct. He can’t fix or persuade. He’s at his wit’s end. His daughter is getting worse and some are saying that she is going to die. Finally, out of resources, out of ideas, with no more options, Jairus reaches out to Jesus. Jairus asks God for help, and healing comes.

This story has a happy ending, but it’s the kind of story I sometimes worry about people hearing. Does this story always promise a happy ending? If a young parent with a very sick child comes to me, do I tell them this story as a means of hope, or do I carefully avoid talking about Jairus and his daughter, in case it gives false hope, in case it gives the impression that God always shows up right when we need it and that healing always comes with a cure?

Perhaps here is where we might recall that healing CAN involve a cure, but doesn’t always. If healing has to do with wholeness, with shalom, with God’s bringing things to a loving completion, then we will need to acknowledge that sometimes healing end s in death. That’s one aspect of the vast spectrum of healing, but we (and others in this room and beyond) also know that miracles of healing happen. People get better. A parishioner who risked losing her eyesight had surgery that included the doctor placing a tiny bubble in the back of her eye. The bubble filled the hole somehow and sight was preserved, a miracle made. Sometimes miracles involve medicine, and sometimes they are simply unexplained.

Miracles happen with prayer and with medical care. But today’s Gospel also points to the more mundane miracles in our lives—the ones that involve healing when someone asks for help.

After Jairus asked for help, his daughter is healed—but that’s just the most obvious part. The Gospel doesn’t go into detail about the other ways that I’m sure Christ brought healing—to Jairus, to his family, to their community, and on and on the healing circle goes. That’s the way healing works when we are humble enough to ask for help—it expands in all kinds of unimagined directions.

When I think of this kind of healing I think of a former parishioner I’ll call “Sarah.” Sarah was middle aged and never married. She had no living family except for one or two distant cousins. When she first received a diagnosis of cancer, she began on a course that would create miracle after miracle. She asked for help.

First Sarah asked friends for help understanding the diagnosis. Which course of treatment might be best? What were others’ experiences? In order to ask for help, she had to get to a new place of humility of realizing that there was no way she could absorb all of the information, do all the research, and weigh every detail alone. She needed help. But that was just the beginning.

Over the next five years, Sarah’s health had ups and downs. She continued to invite other people to help her—doctors and nurses, but also friends and new friends from church. She had one of these amazing spirits that would smile in the face of fear and make a joke about losing her hair during chemotherapy. Each time she got a new, dire diagnosis, she would plan a trip, and that really involved asking for help. In her last year of life, the doctors told her there was no way she could make a dreamed-for safari to Africa. But she felt ok and just kept praying and asking for help. She navigated transporting her medicines across international borders. She lined up emergency insurance and medical support. She had friends praying for her. And she made her trip, taking beautiful photographs that are now shown in an exhibition at our church.

After a long series of ups and downs, Sarah eventually died—peacefully. In the process she had empowered friends who had no idea what they were capable of. She had raised new issues and concerns about the retirement complex where she lived, including other voices and changing procedures and rules for the future. She slowly gave her two animals (probably her very best friends) to other friends, blessing those families with new life and adventure. And she gave her priest (me) the kinds of conversations one usually only imagines in seminary: “What do you think heaven will be like? How do I pray for people who have wronged me but who are dead? Did I fulfil my mission in life?—on and on the questions went, and the conversations continue to live in my head and heart. They sustain me and guide me in talking with others.

Healing that comes from the humility of asking, from a place of emptiness. But the other side of healing encourages generosity and the expansion of inner and outer resources people never dreamed they had.

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking to the wealthy Corinthians almost shames them by telling them about the Macedonians. Look at the Macedonians, he says. They’re poor as church mice, but look how they insist on being a part of every campaign—they’re giving and making and serving and showing up. The Christians in Macedonia had created a culture of generosity. Even though they didn’t have much to share, they shared what they had. As anyone who has ever lived or served among the poor knows, it’s often the poorest of the poor who are the most generous. That’s because they’re used to asking for help. They live more often in a place of humility, so generosity is just that much more obvious.

Richard Rohr is a popular writer and priest of the Franciscan tradition. In one little book, he says, “to finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened within us—and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body” (Breathing under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8-15).

To keep the head open, some kind of contemplative prayer or meditation helps.

To open up the heart, we take a look at our past, be honest with our relationships, allow for creativity, and actually allow our heart to broken, at some point.

For that third part—keeping the body open—Rohr says that the “body is like the ignored middle child in a family.” Having been ignored for so long, the body gets revenge through compulsive eating, sexuality, anorexia, and addiction…” The body needs to be reclaimed as being a part of God’s “good, generative force.” God called it good. God calls US good. And so, we try together, to pray and to live our prayers that God might open within us, “head, heart, and body,” so that we might be healed and might share healing with a wounded world.

As we celebrate this week that includes Independence Day, much of the national celebration will probably focus of the celebration of strength and success and power. Those can be good things and for them, we can offer honest thanks. But also, at least in our own lives, may we also be clear about our weak places. May the Spirit reveal our deficiencies, our inability to fix everything and control everyone. May we be aware of our neediness and ask for God’s help, that we, too, may know God’s healing and resurrecting love.

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

 

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Calm in the Chaos

Jesus_Calms_a_Storm-1181430957lA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2018.  The scripture readings (from Track 2 of the lectionary) are Job 38:1-11Psalm 107:1-3, 23-322 Corinthians 6:1-13, and Mark 4:35-41

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Just north and east of us, in Harlem and in the Bronx, there are children who have tried to cross into the United States borders.  Some have come on their own and others have been separated from their families.  Regardless of how one feels about the pace of immigration reform in this country, or different ways of protecting borders, the mixture of chaos and coldness by too many first makes me angry and then makes me sad.  But also when I read or hear of interviews with some of the people involved, I get confused when various people invoke God.

Sometimes people seem to invoke a god I read about in the Old Testament—a god who orders people into battle and demands the slaughter of enemies.  My own formation as a Christian and my education as a priest have shown me how to read those scriptures in the context of a much larger history and story of God’s love for all creation.  And so, it shocks me when I hear people who are still following, worshipping, and willing to sacrifice for that old, violent god.

But then I’m also confused when I listen to those who are affected by the border crisis—those who flee violent homelands and those who offer them compassion—I listen when God is invoked, because as much as I would like to believe God is in charge and will take special care of “the least and the lowliest,” whether it’s our borders others’ borders, there is a global refugee crisis, and to me, it just doesn’t look like God is doing a very good job of taking care of people.

Why does God allow people to suffer?  Why does God allow for such chaos? Why does God allow evil so much room to roam?  The questions are as old as religion itself, and while there may be no clear answers in today’s scriptures, we will see that we’re not alone in asking.

It comes up in today’s Gospel when there’s a storm and the disciples get scared.  They ask Jesus bluntly, “Lord, do you not care that we are perishing?” But in that case, Jesus is right there, and it soon seems clear that Jesus does care. He wakes up and does a miracle. The wind calms. The sea settles. Jesus cares. God cares, and in that situation a miracle saves the day and restores faith—at least for that afternoon.

The Old Testament character Job must have asked a similar question. “God, do you not care that I’m perishing?” If you recall the story of Job, you remember that he loses everything. He loses family, work, possessions, and finally, even his health begins to suffer. His so-called “friends” sound like anything-but as they give advice and talk, talk, talk, and talk at him. Surely Job has brought all of this upon himself in some way, they say. Surely he’s offended God in some way. Today we might call this “blaming the victim,” and while it’s as old as Job’s friends it’s also as recent as the commentators and politicians in our day.

What’s great about Job, and one reason why we have his story as a part of sacred scripture, is that Job never caves in to the moralistic, simplistic thinking of his friends. Instead, Job goes right to the source. Job prays and talks and even argues a little with God.

Our first scripture reading today is part of God’s answer to Job. It’s beautiful and poetic, but the spoken answer of God is not especially satisfying. It’s as though Job asks, “Why is there evil in the world?” And God says, “Creation IS.” But when Job asks “Why is there evil in the world that’s happening to me?” God responds by drawing closer. It’s like some of the more important conversations we might have: the content is less important than the proximity, the “being with.” God is present with Job. In storms and in good weather. In sickness and in health. In life and in death and in new life again.

What Job’s friends may have been trying to do, but did clumsily, is what Paul is trying to do with the church in Corinth in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. The Christians there had all sorts of problems – with each other and with Paul. But Paul cautions them not to lose hope—remember all we’ve been through, and the faith that has brought us this far. More specifically, Paul says, “As we work together with Christ, [don’t] accept the grace of God in vain.” Another translation puts it, “Don’t squander …[the] marvelous life God has given us.”

Here, I think Paul hits on something that was not only a problem for first century Christianity, but also a huge problem for twenty-first century Christianity. Grace has come to us. It comes at our baptism or before. Grace perhaps comes again at other times in life, but we forget. We get distracted. We are overcome by the storms of life so that all we see is the rising water and the crashing waves, the lightening and the thunder. We say to ourselves, “Sure, God calmed that storm, but what about this one.” Sure, God was with me when I narrowly escaped a car accident. God was with me on the other side of the successful surgery. But what about the complicated issue of THIS day? What about tomorrow?

When we “accept the grace of God in vain” we still think of ourselves as Christians, but it just doesn’t mean much. We forget the power of Christ. And that’s what grace is—not a soft, wispy glow that comes over us when we’re good or when God thinks we’re special.

Grace is power! It’s the power of right over wrong. Grace is the power to love in the face of hatred. Grace is the power of life over death. Grace is the presence of Christ.

When we take that in vain, we’ve lost our voice, we’ve lost our power, we’ve lost ourselves.

On Friday, someone died who was a friend and former parishioner at a church I previously served.  Dick Leitsch had been an early member of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups in the country.  Dick and his friends tried to take a lesson from the Civil Rights “sit ins,” and so he and his friends decided to stage what they called “sip ins,” calmly going into bars, telling the bartender they were gay, and then seeing if they got served.  Most bars and restaurants would not serve gay or lesbian people and could risk their liquor license or worse, if they did.  The Stonewall raid and riots opened things up dramatically in 1969, but Dick Leitsch’s group had paved the way.

The Mattachine Society was accused by others of being too slow, too subtle, too patient.  But Dick just kept going.  Over time, it paid off.  He did the same thing in other aspects of his life, as well—with relationships, with friends, with work, and with church—all areas where initially Dick was rejected, told he was a misfit, and shut out.

Dick Leitsch never took God’s grace for granted, but used for love’s sake.  In his later years, every Wednesday afternoon, many other weekdays, and almost all the major feast days of the Church, Dick would be ushering in the back of the church, small-talking people, welcoming them, pointing out aspects of the architecture, and quietly living out God’s grace.

We MUST NOT take God’s grace in vain. As children of the living God, we have died to sin in the sacrament of baptism and we have been raised to new life in Christ. We have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. And that MEANS something. That MEANS everything.

In answer to the question that comes out of scripture and out of our lives, God does not let us perish. Things might not be easy and they might not look very good ahead, but the love of God surrounds us, the presence of Christ moves us forward, and the fire of the Holy Spirit helps us go with God’s energy of love and healing.

The storms of life will come for us and for others. We may feel as singled out and persecuted as Job, or we may feel like Job’s useless friends—unable to say or do anything to help. But God’s grace is never in vain. God’s grace enables us to love, and love, and love even more.

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

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Truth in the midst of Good and Evil

love wins

Resistance to evil is at the core of what it means to be a friend and follower of Jesus.

At last Sunday’s baptism we promised to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever [we] fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 304). We make this promise at every baptism and whenever we reaffirm our baptismal vows.

Evil exists and can be embraced by individuals, groups, institutions, and movements. Just as no human being or other entity can be completely good, I don’t think it’s possible for someone or something to be completely evil.  But, I do believe that as we live, we engage good or evil in such a way that one force or the other can come to dominate how we act and how we treat others.

Our movement towards good or evil is made up of all the tiny choices we make every day: Do I build up or tear down? Do I contribute or take away from? Do I look for mercy or demand vengeance? Do I seek the common good or my own good above all else?  On and on, the choices go, as spiritual energy for good or evil builds up within us.

In the Eighth Chapter of John, the religious leaders are trying to trick Jesus and accuse him of having a demon. In response, Jesus gives us a good rule of thumb for spotting the devil’s work and for recognizing when evil energy is trying to break in.  Jesus says,

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:43-45)

Jesus identifies the devil (the personification of evil) as a murderer and liar.  The love of God empowers us to resist both—in ourselves and in the world.  We should remember that a murderer is not always raging, angry, and loud.  But a murderer is one who wants to obliterate another—to erase someone who is in the way, to wish them ill, or make them disappear. A murderer might take the life of another in an instant, but we should also be alert to the slow, quiet methods that kill just as surely.

Jesus points out that lies are the chief work of the devil. “Resisting evil” means that we resist telling lies, that we refuse to listen to lies, and that we do all we can to help others live with authenticity and truth. The ability to know the truth comes from the hard work of listening, gathering information, living out of one’s soul, and then praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we’re wrong, we confess it, and move forward in forgiveness. When we’re on the side of truth we stand together and nothing can defeat us.

This Sunday in New York City, millions of people will march to celebrate a sense of pride in and on behalf of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community (as well as all others who refuse to be pigeon-holed or labeled in sexual terms).  Many of us who identify with some aspect of that community have lived into and out of our own deep truth. At times we have faced the cost of that truth but we also rejoice in truth’s liberating freedom. The Pride March is a celebration of truth.

Especially given the challenges of our nation, any celebration of truth can empower us to speak and live the truth wherever we are: with families, in the workplace, in the community, or in the church pew.  As we lean on one another to resist evil, let us draw on the Spirit’s strength to guide us into all truth and recommit to following Jesus our way, our truth, and our life.

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Growing in Christ

Kousa dogwood 2018
A sermon for June 17, 2018.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 17:22-24Psalm 92:1-4,11-142 Corinthians 5:6-17,  Mark 4:26-34

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you like or notice gardens, you will have noticed that we are heading into “boom time.” The Kousa dogwood outside has put on its show and is winding down, but the clematis exploding in purple and the hydrangeas are making their blue and white snowballs. All over the place—in the church garden, in Carl Schurz and Central Park, along sidewalks, on door stoops, and window boxes things are climbing, stretching, creeping, blooming, and making fruit. It’s a season of growth.

In the church, too, we’re heading into a season of growth. The great celebrations of Easter and Pentecost are behind us, and so through the summer and into the fall, the scriptures invite us to think about the Kingdom of God—that commonwealth or realm of God that has as its very nature to grow, and grow, and grow.

Growth runs through our scriptures today. In Ezekiel, God plants a tree as a symbol and reminder that God tends and cares for all his creatures, no matter what may come: storm, drought, or disaster. Both Ezekiel and the Psalm reminds us that those who allow God to do the planting–who let God be the Master Gardener—all those will flourish and bear fruit and live fresh, new lives season after season, even into old age. The Epistle, too, is about spiritual growth as St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that death and life are part of a cycle: Christ went through death in order for new life to come. Just like a plant that dies so that seed can create new life, Christ died giving us seeds for eternal life.
Today’s Gospel comes in the form of a parable, or several parables—those stories that allow us to identify with various characters as the wear the story again and again. Because of this, whenever we read or hear a parable, there’s an invitation for us to step inside and try on some of the different characters and attitudes. Which one speaks to us today? Which one fits best? Which one challenges or offers comfort?

For example, in today’s story, you may identify with the sower, the one who plants seeds and hopes for the best. Whether seeds or seedlings, the hope is that there will be growth. It may be an idea or a practice or a project that you’re just beginning. You do a little to get it started, but then it’s out of your hands. It may be taken out of your hands, or other things may grow to overshadow your project—maybe there is the equivalent of a storm, or maybe the birds in your world eat up the seeds you’ve sown. But if you’re the sower, you make an initial investment and then over time, you have to manage your relationship to the seeds you’ve planted. How much will you try to control? How much will you let go? When will you ask for help?

On the other hand, you might hear today’s Gospel and identity a little with the seed. Perhaps you feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—a family, a relationship, a workplace, a social situation. Where you’ve been placed might be fertile ground with lots of resources and room for growth. Or, it might be a rocky place, full of challenges and rough spots.

Or maybe you’re just trying your best to put down roots somewhere, trying to find something that will stay still long enough to enjoy the sun, to absorb the rain, to find the energy and life within yourself to grow, to expand, to become.

For a number of reasons, one can feel like the seed—waiting on outside forces and trusting God. One can feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. But it’s those times that it’s especially important to remember that built into every seed–deep down–is the capacity to grow into something useful and beautiful.

The birds, too, play a part in the parable. The birds take shade. They find rest and refuge. Someone else has done the major planting and much of the growing, but one day, the birds too, might be called upon to add just the right component to God’s unfolding kingdom.

Jesus tells these parables to help us understand what he calls the Kingdom of God. This “Kingdom of God” is not so much a literal place as it is EVERY PLACE–, every place where God’s intention is allowed to take root and grow. The kingdom is full of mystery—it grows at its own rate. Some parts can be planned, laid out, and organized. But other areas of the kingdom are up to God’s own good grace—we have to let go.

Given the political currents in our country and in many other places of the world, it might feel like in every direction seeds are trampled and growing things are poisoned or torn down. But with faith, we can also see God’s movement and growth in the hidden places. We see what initially looks only like pain and misery. We see disease and violence and poverty. We see a terribly distorted version of the world God has created. But then, with eyes of faith, we look closer. We can begin to see the seeds for compassion, for sharing, for sacrifice, and for healing.

Thinking about the scriptures today, I remember someone with good “eyes of faith.” About fifteen years ago, I went with a group from the Diocese of New York on a mission trip to Honduras. Our task was to help the congregation there build some new, simple church pews, and also to build friendships and relationships with Christians who live very different lives from ours.

One of the people who went with us was a then-70-year old woman named Kathy. Since Kathy wasn’t sure how much of the construction or the climbing of hills she could do, she asked if she could primarily help with the cooking. And so, that’s what she did. She helped with the cooking, spoke almost no Spanish but was able to communicate with other women in the kitchen who spoke no English, and things went well.

The week went along nicely. Most of us noticed that the people from the congregation who were handy really didn’t need our help at all, and were really being gracious to allow us to help them with a project they clearly could handle. But Kathy—there in the kitchen, saw something else. She noticed how easily and quickly the women moved in the kitchen and she began to wonder what they might do if they had a larger, commercial oven.

Kathy asked the priest about this, and the priest asked the women in Spanish, and they didn’t even pause before they replied, “Oh, we’d start a business and bake things and take them to the market to sell them. Kathy was able to see a possibility, something that could grow. When Kathy went home, she got her church to start raising money. Our church added some, and the church in Honduras bought an oven and began a business.
Those who see with faith will see all kinds of possibilities, and the vision never dims. It is as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Everything old has passed away, and the new has come alive.”

Today we baptize Milo and Leon who are just beginning to grow. They are like little seeds, full of potential and wonder, beauty and love. In baptism we add water. With Holy Oil we add nourishment. And with our prayers, we lift them into God’s love so that the light of Christ will shine fully in their lives.

And just a word or two for those who are more comfortable listening in Spanish:

El Evangelio de hoy nos enseña acerca del crecimiento. Al igual que los plantadores, a veces echamos semillas y confiamos en Dios para el crecimiento. Al igual que las semillas, a veces nos sentimos desamparados y pequeños, pero debemos recordar que nuestra naturaleza es crecer.

Hoy bautizamos a Milo y Leon que recién están comenzando a crecer. Son como pequeñas semillas, llenas de potencial y maravilla, belleza y amor. En el bautismo, agregamos agua. Con el Chrisma agregamos alimento. Y con nuestras oraciones, los elevamos al amor de Dios para que la luz de Cristo brille por completo en sus vidas.

Friends, the kingdom of God grows around us and within us. May God continue to grow us in faith and love.

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

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Dangers of the Eucharist

HTNC 2018A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 3, 2018.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, and John 6:47-58.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This morning, weather permitting, some churches will be taking the Holy Sacrament and leaving church.  They’ll be leaving the church building and walking through the neighborhood.  A few churches did this on Thursday and others do it today in a celebration of Corpus Christi Day, carrying the Blessed Sacrament out into the world, for all to adore and celebrate.

When I was first ordained, I served at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the practice there on Corpus Christi is to move through Times Square and then back into the church.  Every year, we would end up with ten, twenty, maybe fifty people following us back into church.  A part of it felt absolutely medieval, but another part felt like exactly the right kind of expression for a church in Times Square.

I still remember the rector of another parish hearing about the outdoor procession and getting very upset about it He was offended, he wrote in a newsletter article.  He felt that this walking through Times Square with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood was a “dangerous practice,” since the Sacrament might easily be defiled, disparaged, or misunderstood.

Christian history reminds us of conflicts between Christians and often—mixed up in the politics and the power plays—there were differences in belief around the Eucharist (the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) or Holy Communion.  The extreme Protestant view (Baptists, some Presbyterians and others) would hold that the bread and wine (whether fermented or unfermented) are symbols and reminders of the loving meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the Last Supper.  The extreme Catholic view, which many call “Transubstantiation” holds that through the words of the priest, the bread and wine substantially and objectively become the body and blood of Christ.  Each Mass is (what some have called) an “unbloody sacrifice.”

Those of you who know the Anglican tradition or are used to the Episcopal way of viewing things will not be surprised to know that the Anglican view (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) is somewhere in the middle.  Our church’s official belief is in the Real Presence, though we don’t specific or demand that one understand the mystery of the Real Presence in exactly the same way.

Anglicans often recall the words of John Donne(1572–1631): “He was the Word that spake it;  He took the bread and brake it; And what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it”  (Divine Poems. On the Sacrament.)

In addition to historical conflicts and modern-day differences, the Holy Eucharist brings danger also when we take it seriously.  It can be dangerous because it can change our lives.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel puts it, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. They who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” And that’s where the danger really begins.
We can think about what it means to “abide in Christ,” to take the Body of Christ into our bodies by noting what our Book of Common Prayer says about the Eucharist.  Way in the back of the Prayer Book is a section call simply “The Catechism,” and in the part about the Holy Eucharist, the Catechism outlines what it calls “the benefits of the Eucharist.”

“The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our unions with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”

And hidden within each of these benefits, there are dangers and possibilities.

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Saint Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” This is dangerous medicine, then, for anything or anyone who might be interested in keeping us in sin. The devil will not look on such medicine as innocuous or harmless, nor will his minions. And so, the Eucharist helps us. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.

The second benefit according to the Catechism has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a culture that suggests we should live only for ourselves, that we try to obtain all that we can for ourselves with little regard for others; in a culture that in any way lifts up people like the Kardashians as important, relevant or meaningful—- the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is dangerous stuff.
In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underline that we are not so different from one another as we are sometimes led to believe. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marriage status are dissolved in the common chalice. They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.

Finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, this holy Sacrament, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending.

On Memorial Day our country paused to remember those who have died in service for us, for freedom and for the opportunities that this country symbolizes.  Danger and promise are all wrapped up in the idea of service, but we honor those who have died for our country, just as we honor those who have died for Christ by stepping through fear and danger and holding on to faith.

Strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, let the danger begin. Let us risk blasphemy, as Jesus did, as we try to show the Body of Christ to the world. Let us risk being misunderstood, as Jesus did, as we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to lift up the poor, to release those held in captivity. And let us risk the danger of faith, as our Savior Jesus did, taking up our cross daily and following him wherever he leads.

Jesus says, “They who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day …. They who eat this bread will live for ever.” May we live into these words, both dangerous and delicious.

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

 

 

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