Making room for Resurrection

El_Salvador_(El_Greco)A sermon for Easter Day, April 21, 2019.  The scripture readings are Acts 10:34-43 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24,  1 Corinthians 15:19-26 , and John 20:1-18

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a new movie out that imagines the life of Mary Magdalene. It imagines her family, her decision to follow Jesus, and her faithfulness to him and his mission. At one point, Mary Magdalene is talking with Mary the mother of Jesus. Jesus’s mother looks at Mary Magdalene and asks directly, “You love my son, don’t you? You must prepare yourself like me.” Mary Magdalene asks, “For what?” And the older Mary explains, “to lose him.”

Jesus himself taught that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)

Living with Resurrection Faith means that we live prepared, prepared to lose the things we love, the people we love, and prepared to lose ourselves. Because, like the Prayer of St. Francis puts it so beautifully,

It is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

If we hold on too tightly, with clenched fists, we can’t receive anything from God. We won’t see opportunities. We won’t hear new sounds or songs. We won’t learn or grow.

I was able to see this kind of faithful preparation for death,–even while already giving new life–a few weeks ago when I was in England.

In addition to spending time with our link parish in London, we went to Oxford for a couple of days to walk, gawk at the architecture and history, and see the places where so many of the best BBC murder mysteries are filmed. And, I went to have tea with two Anglican nuns.

Some of you may not know that there are Anglican monks and nuns, and that the Episcopal Church in this country has monks and nuns—but we do. In the 1530s, King Henry VIII disbanded all monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland, appropriated their income, and disposed of their assets. And the few surviving monastics fled to other parts of Europe. But in 1845, the renewed community of nuns was formed. In 1852 Mother Harriet Monsell began the Clewer House of Mercy, especially working with women in need. At it’s peak, the Community of St. John Baptist had some 300 sisters, and in 1874 a few came to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to form the American branch of the Community. (Today, the Community of St. John Baptist in this country is based in Mendham, NJ, and I serve as their Community Pastor, sort of like a chaplain, who visits and is on call, when needed.) It’s the English community, from 300 sisters down to 4, that I met Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen.

The sisters know that the English order is dying and that with their deaths, there will be no more Community of St. John Baptist in England. They could obsess over this, cling to tradition, respond to societal change with anger and judgment, or deny their reality. Instead, the are clear-eyed and faithful.  First, they sold their massive convent near Windsor.  They mourned its loss. They mourned its history, its love, and its mission. But they also gained a lot of money from the sale of the property. And with prayer, with new partners, and with the money they gained for the sale, new life has come. It looks different, but it’s faithful to the founding vision of Mother Harriet, which is to convey the love of Jesus Christ to the world, especially to women in need.

The four sisters, with a trust that helps guide funding initiatives, help support the One23 project in Bristol, England.  The sisters helped them purchase a house that offers programs and presence to women vulnerable to street sex-work, helping them to break free and build new lives away from violence, poverty and addiction.

With support from a Church of England bishop, the sisters have funded a huge campaign that seeks to raise awareness of human trafficking, of modern slavery in England. Named for the town of that first monastic community, the Clewer initiative,  it helps dioceses and individuals detect modern slavery in their communities and helps provide victim support and care. One creative feature is a mobile phone app that allows one to detect a problem situation and report it to local authorities.

When the sisters sold their massive convent, they needed a place to live, so they deepened a relationship with Ripon Theological College at Cuddesdon, just outside Oxford. There, they built a new multi-use building, with a convent on the top floor, and also endowed a new, beautiful, architecturally-praised chapel for the college. The two sisters living at Cuddesdon are both priests in the Church of England, and they are going strong, preaching, offering spiritual direction and guidance, leading retreats, and living out their vows.

Sister Anne and Sister Mary Stephen know they will die and that much they love will die. But they also know the new life through Christ that is possible, when we let go, and give God some room for Resurrection.

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

May we have the courage to die with Christ, so that with new strength, joy, purpose, and faith, we may rise again with him.

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

 

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Witnessing

apostorum-apostola
A sermon for Easter Eve, April 20, 2019.  The scripture readings used for the Easter Vigil include Luke 24:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In 2016, Pope Francis made an effort to get the story straight about Mary Magdalene. It was one of his predecessors, Pope Gregory (in the 6th century) who perpetuated the unfounded myth that Mary Magdalene had been a prostitute who was healed from her former way of life. But Pope Francis, reading the Bible closely, reclaimed an earlier observation that Mary was the very first witness to the Resurrection. Luke’s Gospel says that Mary and the other women found the empty tomb, heard about the Resurrection from the two angels, and then “told this to the apostles.” John’s Gospel, which the Church hears tomorrow, fills in other details—that Mary found the stone removed and ran to tell Peter. Together, they see an empty tomb. Peter goes home, while Mary stands weeping outside the tomb. It’s then, in John’s Gospel, that Jesus appears to Mary and specifically tells her, “…Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Pope Francis used an old term the church has used for centuries to proclaim Mary Magdalene, Apostolorum apostola, the Apostle of the Apostles.

Mary tells the others what she has seen. She bears witness. In the language of some Christians, Mary testifies to God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s power to resurrect Jesus. Through his Resurrection we have hope, we have faith, and we the way to eternal life. But all of this would have been left in the tomb, had Mary not spoken. Had she not spoken up.

Mary bore the cost of speaking up. We don’t know the specifics of how the other male disciples regarded her, but if history is any indication, we can guess that they ignored her. Or more truthfully, they stole her voice, made it their own, and pushed her to the side.

The saints and martyrs told their truth, and some were persecuted, and some were put to death for their faith. And this continues. According to the Open Doors Organization, every month, around the world, an average of 345 Christians are killed for faith-related reasons, 105 Churches and Christian buildings are burned or attacked, and 219 Christians are detained without trial, arrested, sentenced and imprisoned.

While we enjoy enormous religious freedom where we live, we face risks when we speak of our faith- on the subway, in the workplace, or in social settings. People may think we’re fanatics. They may think we’re simple-minded or unsophisticated.

Some lament the lack of children and young people in churches, the demise of Sunday schools and robust programs. But the trite truth is that Christian faith is caught, and not so much taught. Unless children experience and see faith in their parents, they’re not going to be in church or school for formation.

St. Francis is credited with saying something along the lines of “Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words.” We know that we don’t always and everywhere have to use words. But we do need to live out our faith. We need to witness. We need to testify, or faith will be as dormant as the tomb.

May the faith and ferocity of Mary Magdalene inspire us when we’re anxious, shame us when we’re lazy, and motivate us to join her and the other witnesses to change the world for love’s sake.

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

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Looking through death

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon for Good Friday, April 19, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 10:16-25, and John 18:1-19:42

Listen to the sermon HERE

I saw a friend last week who said that he would be spending this week in Rome. Where should they go to church? Well, I’ve only been to Rome once, so I gave him a list of my favorites but told him he do best by asking the concierge at the hotel which church would not be too crowded, what might be close, etc. And then I remembered something. I emailed by buddy later and told him, “Not for Sunday, for some other time, be sure and visit the Capuchin Church of Santa Maria della Concezione.

The church itself is interesting. But what really sets Saint Mary of the Immaculate Conception apart is its basement, its crypt.

This crypt is decorated. On walls, monuments, altars, over doors, there are elaborate designs. There are crosses and shapes. Texture, tone, and contrast. In one place the Franciscan coat of arms has been fashioned. In another, there the shapes of flowers.

And it’s all made of bones. Human bones, bones of former Capuchin friars.

It seems that in 1631, a Cardinal who was also a Capuchin friar, ordered the remains of thousands of Capuchin friars exhumed and transferred from another friary to this crypt. For whatever reason and with whatever motivation, a few of the friars decided to get creative. The bones of their brother friars were arranged along the walls. As prayers were said in the crypt chapels, one would contemplate life and death, one’s own life and one’s own death.

Before long, the friars began to bury their own dead here, as well as the bodies of poor Romans, who couldn’t afford another burial place. Between 1500 and 1870, some 4,000 bodies found their eternal rest at the Church of St. Mary. Today, there’s a great museum at the church that explains (to the extent it can be explained) the crypt and guides one through a few hundred years of Capuchin history. If you go to Rome, you’ve got to visit.

People sometimes respond to death in different ways. Your approach may seem very strange to me. But the way I think of death may seem odd to you.

We approach our death differently and we approach the death of Jesus Christ differently, as we hear in the Passion according to St. John.

Poor Simon Peter often gets criticized by the Church for (first) his enthusiasm and (second) his denial. Peter’s zeal pulls a sword in the garden and slices off the ear of a soldier—the same Peter who later denies knowing Jesus or having anything to do with him.

In the events leading up to the death of Jesus, Pontius Pilate sees what’s happening and is afraid. He’s afraid because he wonders if perhaps there really is something special about Jesus. And yet, Pilate is also afraid because of the messy political situation he has found himself in. The death of Jesus is a complication for him. It’s a troubling and difficult item on the agenda. It has to be dealt with so that things can move on; so that he can move on.

The religious leaders view the death of Jesus as necessary for the purity and holiness of what they understand religion to be. He is a danger to “orthodoxy,” or right belief.

The soldiers see the death of Jesus as business as usual. Underpaid and poor themselves, the soldiers look for what they can get out of it, and divide his clothes.

Mary Magdalene, other women and friends are there, and they are like faithful mothers and spouses and friends who understand and experience death as simply a part of life. Practical things much be taken care of: prayers said, loved ones comforted, grieving people fed and taken care of. They are like the mothers and grandmothers and friends we see too often on the news whenever there is a shooting of young person—they are so used to the violence, they simply get out the clothes, cook the casserole, and go to church.

And then, there is Mary the mother of Jesus and John, the disciple who was Jesus’s best friend. They somehow approach the cross with an openness and vulnerability that allows them to help each other. They form a new community, a community in which we follow.

And so, what about us? How do we approach the Cross of Christ?

There may be hesitation, as we wonder what to do or say or think.
There may be doubt as we can’t quite believe what we’re hearing or seeing.
There may be relief, relief that we’re embarrassed about, but relief just the same that the ordeal is over. The long Way of the Cross, the trail of tears, has ended. It’s horrible, but it’s over.

And there may be confusion. What does this all mean? What will tomorrow be like? How do we live beyond this?

Good Friday can be a difficult day because we not only confront the death of Jesus Christ, but in drawing close to the cross, we also confront the issue of death itself: the death of loved ones and our own death.

But the major message of this day is that death is not what it appears to be—not the death of Christ, and not our own!

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

Then we open the door and go inside—leave the outer world, enter the inner world—and the universal light floods through the windows and bathes us in their colour and beauty and significance, shows us things of which we had never dreamed, a loveliness that lies beyond the fringe of speech.” (Light of Christ, p. 36-37)

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

In order to understand the cross of Christ and his death for us, we need to enter in. The cross is not as it first appears. The tomb will not be as it first appears. Death is not as it first appears. But on Good Friday, through prayer, through our pain, through hope, and through tears, we enter in. We go with him into the tomb, together and in hope.

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

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God in the Now

Holy Week Maundy ThursdayA sermon for Maundy Thursday, April 18, 2019.  The scripture readings are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14 , Psalm 116:1, 10-17, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Yesterday, I wandered into Eli’s Market on Third Avenue, looking for Easter candy.  As I passed the prepared foods section, I stopped.  There, in front of me, perfectly wrapped and ready for purchase, was a take-out Seder meal.  Complete with hard-boiled egg, shank bone, horseradish, haroset, and a parsley bouquet, it’s just what one needs to observe a simple Seder meal and begin Passover. As most of you know, the Seder includes symbolic foods that help to remember God’s saving the people of Israel, then, now, and always; the same story pointed to in our Exodus reading.  I love the image of that take-out Seder meal in the market because it’s a good example of how Moses explains it should be.

In Exodus, Moses puts it bluntly, “Eat [the meal] with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it hurriedly.” Moses rushes the people through their meal because God is busy rushing through Egypt and making a way for the people to go forward, a way of freedom and new life.

When Jesus and his disciples gathered in an upper room to celebrate the Passover meal, they knew the tradition from Exodus, but I think Jesus chose this place and this time not to have a hurried meal. Instead, I think he chose this time and place in order to slow down. Biblical scholars argue about whether Jesus knew exactly what the next few days would bring, or whether he just sensed things were leading in a certain direction. But whatever the case, in the midst of confusion, uncertainty, worry, fear, perhaps some doubt—Jesus chose this supper as a chance to be with his friends and to savor ever minute. To taste the bread. To chew the olives. To smell the wine. To pray with eyes open wide.

Jesus speaks with them very gently. He talks about what might be ahead. When they become anxious, he offers calm. He shows them faith. He tries to prepare them spiritually, and as a symbol of servant hood and of cleaning away the old to make room for the new, Jesus washes their feet.

Simon Peter is uncomfortable with the idea. Probably for different reasons than we might be, but the reluctance, the vulnerability, the hesitation to yield to another, to allow another to touch, and wash, and offer— some of us might be in the same place as Simon Peter, and we might be uncomfortable.

And yet, just like Jesus tries to show Simon Peter that service involves not only giving, not only “doing unto;” but it also involves receiving, and allowing other to do, so Jesus offers us a way of service that makes for communion.

This act of washing feet not only recalls the service Jesus showed his disciples, but it also reminds us of where we are. We’re not back in First Century Palestine. We’re here, in New York. We don’t (all of us) have stylized, beautiful feet like in paintings or frescoes, we have what we have. And we have one another.

If you look around, you’ll see a sight that will never be repeated again: Each of these people, sitting where he or she is sitting, looking the way they do. This particular configuration of people, in this space, with the light just as it is—will never happen exactly like this again. Water, bread, wine, bodies, emotions…. they are all rare and endangered—endangered by the worries of tomorrow, by the regrets of yesterday, by the distractions of today ….

And so, God invites us to be present in this evening. To be present now.

For many, this season of Lent has been especially challenging for keeping any kind of focus.  The political and cultural questions of our day keep us anxious and on the defensive for what used to be normal, basic values.  Tax season has brought new worries and challenges for many, especially in our area and our parish.  Health concerns confront us, random violence in the city disturbs us, and few of us work in jobs that feel steady or secure. And then, on Monday, we watch as Notre Dame burns—reminding many of us of other occasions of fire and chaos:  9/11, the fire in November 2011 at our own cathedral—and reminding us all of the impermanence of buildings, of people, of life.

Among the many lessons Jesus models in the Upper Room is the practice of presence.  He is fully present—not worried about the past; not worried about the future, but in the now.  In his book, The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains, ““Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time—past and future—the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.” (The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment).

We have a song in our hymnal that sums up this ministry of prayerful presence, hymn simply called, “Now.”  It sings,

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;

Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;

Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

Just as Jesus used the Upper Room as a time to be with his friends, so this night provides us an opportunity to be present. A lot has gone before us. The days ahead will bring their challenges, but we are here, in this place. And God is here, in this place, now.

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In place of palms

Entry to Jerusalem detail (2)A brief sermon for The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday, April 14, 2019.  The scripture readings are Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This year we read the Palm Gospel and the Passion from Saint Luke. But if you were listening carefully, you’ll notice that there was no mention of palms. In Luke’s version of the entry into Jerusalem, the people throw their coats and extra garments on the road. Matthew and Mark say the people spread garments and leafy branches on the road and it is John who specifies that they were palm branches.

Like the people of that holiday so long ago in Jerusalem, we wave our branches in excitement and we wave them in remembrance. We wave them in praise of the one who comes in the name of the Lord. But an early church father suggests we might do even more.

Andrew of Crete was an eighth century monk who is known especially for his hymns and sermons. He says a radical thing.  He says

It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, with the whole Christ “for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ”—so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.

At all of our services today, when we read the Passion, the words of Jesus are not read by me, by a special reader, or by someone with a baritone voice.  Instead, the words of Jesus, the part of Jesus is played by all the people.  All of us.  When we enter into the scriptures deeply, we are bound to identify with different characters and storylines, depending on where we are in our own journey.  We might identify with those who betrayed Jesus, or those who let him down. We may identify with those who simply stayed at a distance.
But the point of the Incarnation, which makes possible the Resurrection, is that God came to be like us so that we could become more like God.  And so, we are invited to follow Christ as closely as possible.

“It is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet.”

What Andrew of Crete is suggesting, I think, is that we do what we can to allow Christ to be ahead of us and to lead us forward. Andrew is suggesting that by lowering ourselves, Christ is raised within us– to grow in us, to allow his words to take shape and form in our lives, and to allow his work of life, death and resurrection to wash over us, overtake us, and even to overwhelm us.

The liturgies of Holy Week give us various opportunities to slow down, to set aside the calendar and the “to do” list. We can put on hold the endless list of “shoulds.” Instead, we are invited to worship. We are asked to watch, to wait, to pray, to adore, that we might claim the power of our baptism, that we have died with Christ, and that through him, we are raised to new life.

May we spread our lives before Christ that he may be raised in us and that we might be raised into the glory of God.

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

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Christ our Friend

Mary-Martha-LazarusA sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The scriptures today invite us to get ready, to heighten all of our senses if we can, to listen, look, taste, see, feel… “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord.  And God asks Isaiah (and us), “Do you not perceive it? Can you sense the new thing?”

The section we hear from Isaiah today comes from a larger section that promises good things to the people of Israel.  And yet, this word of encouragement from God through Isaiah comes while the Israel is still far from home.  They are still captive in Babylon and only have the hope of returning home.  Isaiah says, “Hang on. It’s going to get better.” “I will make a way.”  I will bring water to the thirsty and food to the hungry.  I will lead you out of this, into a better place.

The Psalm sings of just that, of God’s deliverance.  This is a pilgrimage psalm.  People would gather together to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem and they would sing psalms like this one on the way to celebrate the Passover, just like the kind of procession we’ll re-enact next Sunday, the palms that lead the way forward for Jesus.

The Gospel take us right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.

John’s version of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus is the one we read today. Here, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of her friend and teacher, probably as a gesture of warmth and hospitality.  Jesus names it as anointing for death.  Jesus knows what’s ahead.  Judas shows up to criticize, to misunderstand and to miss the significance of Jesus’ presence.  Judas’s point of view is taken up soon after this scene as the religious leaders get together and decide that because of the raising of Lazarus, something has to be done to stop Jesus.  He’s getting too popular. The people are losing their minds over him.

Today’s Gospel sets the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week.  Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus.  This is just after Lazarus has died, and Jesus has raised him from death.  But this is just a hint of what’s coming. Lazarus has been resuscitated, given a new lease on life, but he will presumably die again, later.  This “raising” has to do with Lazarus and is a sign.  But it begins to reveal the power of God in Christ, the power that will be fully let loose on Easter with the resurrection not only from death, but with a victory of sin and death for ever.

Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty.  The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life.  But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern open and available to us.

In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ.  That he is a Jew, doesn’t matter.  That he is learned, doesn’t matter.  That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter.  His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. That’s all rubbish, Paul says.  The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”  Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch or befriend.  And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not even in scripture.  Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us.  In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36).  Sometimes that might be a stranger, but other times it might be that we meet Christ is a person very close to us as we serve them, or as we allow them to serve us.

Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar.  In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another.  In the sharing of a meal, we become a family.  In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the other people, in Holy Communion, and through prayer, Jesus Christ befriends us.

Any friendship takes time to develop. It involves talking and listening.  With a real friend, we can be ourselves—no pretenses, just comfort.  A friend can challenge us and change us.  A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour.

Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space.  That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge.  But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing.  Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available.  Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.

This side of heaven, we don’t have the easy friendship with Jesus that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had.  But Christ does invite us to the same kind of intimacy.  We don’t have oil to offer in anointing, but we have other gifts, other qualities, other ways of being present, being still, listening and learning from Jesus our Friend.

As we remember the stories that take us along with Jesus to Jerusalem, may the Holy Spirit quicken within us a sense of Christ our Fried—alongside and within.

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

 

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God’s Welcome

prodigalA sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019.  The scripture readings are Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of the highlights of ordained ministry happened for me in summer 2012.  A couple had been together for ten years and had served as foster parents for several children.  They had hoped to adopt, but each time the process got close, something happened.  Finally, the couple served as foster parents for two children and began the process to adopt them. The birth mother was supportive and encouraging, but the couple was surprised when the social worker called to announce that the little boy and girl also had a smaller sister, and if the couple would like to adopt here, as well, it might be possible. After a year or two of process, paperwork, meetings, and reviews, on a hot Thursday in July, a bunch of us met in family court in downtown Washington.  As the judge signed the documents and made the adoption official, we all cheered. The little girls aged 2 and 3, and their big brother, age 6, now had a new family and a whole new family support network.  At that point, everyone left the court (included the judge) and we walked to a nearby restaurant, where we were expected.  After a few celebratory drinks and after a few more people arrived, I officiated at the marriage of the couple (they happened to both be men, and marriage had just become legal recently), and then once they were married, we used the Book of Common Prayer’s form for the Thanksgiving of the Adoption of Children.

I remember talking with the couple for years before they were finally able to adopt.  I remember how deeply they felt called to be parents and how almost every decision they made was done with an eye towards a future family.  I’ve known other people who have had similar hopes, expectations, and dreams of having children—whether biologically or through adoption. In each family, I look at the children and I think of how lucky they are to be so deeply loved.  How blessed they are.  And I wonder if they have any idea of just how much and for how long they’ve been loved?

Do WE have any idea of how much WE are loved and wanted and desired and hoped for and planned for and dreamed about—by God? THIS is what today’s Gospel story is about—it’s about God’s searching, seeking love; love that disregards custom or protocol or cultural expectation—love that disrupts and makes a new world, love that moves towards each one of us.

The story of the prodigal is straightforward enough and whenever we hear it read, we probably hear a bit of ourselves in one of the characters or another.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn’t there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the only the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there truly were no risk of getting caught?)

Today’s Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself.

There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks.

But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And then it’s party time. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

The way Jesus tells the story, we can be tempted to stay within the story itself.  And yet, for us, living in the 21stcentury, the context is a little different. God in Jesus has given himself for us and in the outpouring of God’s love for humanity that begins on the cross, wave after wave of God’s love comes to us.  We simply have to turn and receive the love God wants to give us.

Perhaps we have never acted out as explicitly and dramatically like the younger child in the Gospel.  Perhaps we have never quite stewed, steamed, or harbored resentments like the elder brother, but we have each surely done our part to cause separation– from God, from one another, and from our deepest and truest selves.  We have each of us sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But God is always and forever seeking us, loving us from afar, hoping and praying for us to return.

Austin Farrer was a chaplain and theologian in the early 20thcentury and he writes in one place about the forgiveness of God.

“God forgives me with the compassion of his eyes, but my back is turned to him. I have been told that he forgives me, but I will not turn and have the forgiveness, not though I feel the eyes on my back. God forgives me, for he takes my head between his hands and turns my face to his to make me smile at him. And though I struggle and hurt those hands—for they are human, though divine, human and scarred with nails – though I hurt them, they do not  let go until he has smiled me into smiling; and that is the forgiveness of God.” (Austin Farrer, in Said or Sung. London, Faith Press. 1960.)

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about a new world order, and that’s what it feels like when we turn to God in humility and honesty, and receive God’s love.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! . . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

How do we know and feel the depth of God’s love for us?  In this life, we may find it difficult to believe the Good News, the depth of God’s love for us.  But in faith and in the community of the Church, we listen, we receive, we grow in faith.

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Turning and Returning

repentanceA sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019.  The sermon was offered at St. Stephen’s Church, Rochester Row, London (the parish linked with The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC).  The scripture readings followed the appointed readings for the Church of England, Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9 (below).


Listen to the sermon HERE
. (There is no edited, written version of the sermon to be posted this week.)

Luke 13:1-9, New Revised Standard Version

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

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Choosing to be faithful

Crucifix draft detailA sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019.  The scripture readings are Genesis 15:1-12,17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, and Luke 13:31-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Gospel for next week begins with big questions for Jesus.  People have just asked him about the slaughter of innocent people and why a huge tower in another city fell and killed people.  Too many Sundays in the past few years, we gather after some sort of horrific event—a killing, a mass-murder, a catastrophe.  On Friday night, we prayed our Stations of the Cross with particular intentions for the victims of the mosque shootings in New Zealand and we pray for them and innocent victims everywhere again today.

But we have choices about how to respond—and that’s where faith comes in.  That’s where a life in Christ comes in.  That’s why we come to church, we gain strength from others in faith, we are nourished by the Sacraments, and we live for love.

St. Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians sounds fresh to us as he says, “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, . . . [so] stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”

We are often confronted with whether to choose God or some other god, as in last week’s Gospel with Jesus tempted in the wilderness. We’re confronted with whether to choose the way of faithfulness or what might appear to be a quicker way of safety and comfort. And, finally (practically and personally) we’re often confronted with whether to choose blessing over curses.

In our first reading (from Genesis) Abram has to choose whether he’s going to keep on listening to this God who insists he is the One, True God or whether perhaps it’s time to try some other god. He hasn’t become Abra-ham, yet. He’s not totally convinced yet.
He hasn’t come to that point of conversion, marking a decisive change in his following God that even comes with a name change. It’s still early in the game. But God has promised. “Your reward will be very great,” God says. And so, Abram is wondering when the good stuff is going to start rolling in. “Where’s IS that reward, God? You’ve promised me children, where are they?”

But just at the point of Abram’s possibly choosing to go a different route, God answers. In this case, God saves him from making a bad choice. God says, stop doubting, stop worrying, just be faithful, hang on a little bit. “I am the Lord who brought from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (In other words, I am the Lord who brought you out of the middle of nowhere into SOMEwhere. I know you, and you know me.) Lucky for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abram chooses God.

In today’s Gospel, the choices are subtle and hidden beneath all the action. The religious and secular leaders are feeling threatened by Jesus and so they try to run him out of town. But Jesus tells them to send a message to the leader.  “Jesus isn’t going anywhere.” He’s staying put and he’s staying faithful.

But Jesus knows that there are others who will decide to follow a different way. He mourns over the city of Jerusalem, a city that has rejected prophets in the past—a city that represents so much, a city with wealth, power, tradition, sophistication, creativity, diversity—but it seems to be choosing to reject Jesus, and in so doing, rejects the movement of God.

That’s a choice for us. We choose that citizenship in heaven. Sometimes our parents choose it for us at baptism, but we grow to a point where we choose Christ for ourselves. The choice may come at some formal occasion, such as a first Communion, or confirmation, a marriage, a funeral, or at some unexpected time. We can find ourselves choosing Christ in the midst of worship, or in the midst of prayer, or in a crisis, or in a time of emotional or spiritual intensity.

Sometimes the choices for being faithful come daily, if not hourly. Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey, describes an insight about this that came when he stubbed his toe. Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003).

 

He describes something most of us have probably experienced. He remembers walking through his house and accidentally stubbing his toe on a step. With his first breath, he yelled something along the lines of “God…” and he may have even added a few other words. But with his second breath, it occurred to him that the words he had already said were really a kind of prayer. To cry out, “God” – no matter what else may be added on is a kind of prayer.

That’s all in what Morris calls “the first breath.” But then there’s the opportunity of a second breath. In the second breath, we make a decision, we make a choice as to whether the prayer is going to be a blessing or a curse. When Father Morris stumped his toe, he realized that he had begun a prayer, and so he might as well finish it. “God” turned into “God bless,” “God bless my toe, God bless me in my clumsiness, God bless me and have mercy on me.”

Think about all the situations that come up for us daily in which we have the opportunity to turn first breaths into second breath prayers—the person on the other end of the phone, the person across from us at the meeting, the child who is ignoring everything we say or do or ask, the neighbor next door, the boss who can never be pleased, the family member who (after all these years) still doesn’t get it… They all can drive us to frustration and we can respond with a blessing or with a curse.

All deep religious practices, at some point, pay attention to the breath.  Yoga, tai chi, Christian meditation and Centering prayer all teach us to notice our breathing.  Christ invites us to pay attention to our first and second breath prayers.  The first ones are from the gut, they’re reactive.  But the second ones can come from a place of faith and reason and openness to God’s Spirit.  By paying such attention, by choosing blessing over curse, we begin to pray like Jesus prayed. In so doing, we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we choose to turn toward Jerusalem (and even the Cross), and we choose to turn toward God.

Choices surround all of us—but whether it’s about a career, or a special person, or finances; vocation, or how to respond to someone who makes us mad—may the Holy Spirit guide our choices, help us to watch our breath, and to live toward the way of blessing.  Any choice will have consequences as life plays itself out.  But with faith, the only bad choice is the one we make without God.  As long as we chose WITH God, God moves us toward blessing— with Abraham and Sarah, with St. Paul, with St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples, and with the faithful of every age—into the eternal blessing of Christ’s presence and peace.  Thanks be to God for the gift of choosing.

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

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Alone in a Room with God

jesus and the devil iconA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of the great deposits of wisdom in the Christian Tradition comes from the Sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, collections of stories and sayings from Christians who, especially in the 4th century, went into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia, to pursue a deeper relationship with God.

One day, a person trying to figure out their faith approached one of these Desert Fathers saying, “Father, give a word.” In order words, the seeker was asking, “How does one grow in God? How does one pray? How does one learn to be more loving and forgiving…how, how, how?”  The wise old teacher responded simply, “Go and sit in your room, and your room will teach you everything.” [The conventional saying, of course, uses “cell” instead of “room,” but modern hearers will perhaps hear “room” more smoothly.] Whether it’s a special room for prayer, or a bedroom, or a kitchen, or a church—the wisdom is the same:  sit still, pray and meditate and be present with yourself, your deepest self, and God will show up—for you, and in you, and around you. But it might not always be pretty.

Having just been baptized and filled with the Spirit, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there (while not so much in a room), Jesus is brought face to face with himself. And within himself, temptations surface up in the form of Satan. Perhaps Satan showed up in person. Perhaps Satan showed up in a vision, or in Jesus’s imagination— whatever way we imagine it, it felt real to Jesus—as real as temptations feel when they show up for us.

Whether we picture the devil as a little red man with a tail and pitchfork, or whether the devil is more that little voice inside each of us that second-guesses and accuses, the temptations Jesus faces are ones that we might be confronted with from time to time.

The temptation of turning stones into bread, is really the temptation of gluttony, to satisfy ourselves with food and drink and stuff, to find happiness in these things.

The temptation of pursuing glory and authority of the world is not so different for us. There are the countless choices we make between doing the thing that will better our paycheck or professional standing or status, as opposed to doing the just, honest, true and decent thing.

And finally, the third temptation for Jesus to jump off the temple top and be rescued by angels. Perhaps it relates to us when we’re so uncomfortable in our own skin or our own situation, that we’re tempted to jump in any direction, to do something tragic or dramatic simply to change the situation.

To each of the temptations offered by the devil, Jesus quotes scripture. In other words, Jesus takes a deep breath, touches his spiritual base, and does whatever he needs to do to center himself and remind himself of who he is and of whose he is. Jesus can withstand the devil’s voice because Jesus has trained for this—through prayer, through showing and sharing compassion, and by spending time alone, learning from his room, from his garden, and from the sometimes painful silence that comes in the face of Truth.

This Season of Lent invites us to practice being along with God, being present with God.  Prayer, spiritual disciplines, self-reflection, growth in faith—all of this is training for spiritual battle.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout this season we’re reminded of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.) Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

Wherever our spiritual “room” might be—whether a special place at home, or with others, or in the church, in a park, or a yoga studio or gym—may we have the courage to meet God and the strength, with Jesus, to stare down the devil.

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