Living Towards Others

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I love the honesty in today’s Gospel. We see James and John, sons of Zebedee BEFORE they show themselves to be the future St. John (the beloved disciple, the one who Jesus sees as family from the cross, as he entrusts John to his mother Mary, and his mother to his friend, John. This is James, more like Jimmy, long before he is known as James the Greater and patron saint of Spain.

No, here, we see plain old James and John who are a lot like people we know. Maybe even a lot like us. They are so eager to get ahead, to make sure they get their due, that they come right out and ask Jesus to help them understand what their assignments will be in the future kingdom of God.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I suppose we have to give them points for honesty. But Jesus tries to help them see that the they have no idea what they’re asking for because the kingdom of God is a kingdom of reversals. Jesus will be elevated by first making himself low.

The Reading from Hebrews refers to this as the “reverent submission” of Christ.  In those beautiful words the anonymous writer of that scripture says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Greatness comes not through position or power, but through service, by putting others first, and the self second (or third, or fourth, or fifth.)

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption. Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified. At yesterday’s Global Mission Fair, the Rt. Reverend Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, Tanzania, was talking about the various ministries in his diocese.  Among one of the health issues some of his people face, the bishop almost casually mentioned leprosy.  Several of us looked at each other, as if to ask, “Did I hear that right?”  I looked it up later and found that according to the CDC, some 2 million people in the world are still disabled by leprosy, and in Tanzania and elsewhere, it still has social stigma, like we read about in the scriptures.

We are called, with others, to work to alleviate all who suffer. There is no redemption in pointless suffering, and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will.

Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering.

A book I’m reading has reminded me of how the poet Walt Whitman served and suffered, and in so doing, found his own greatness.  Greatness, for Whitman, didn’t come by being a cultural superstar—either in New York or in Philadelphia. But the depth of his writing emerged from his own witness of suffering.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman was living with his mother in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, picking up odd jobs, carousing around town, and really looking for himself, as much as anything or anyone else. His brother George enlisted in the Union Army, and the next year, it was feared that George was killed in battle.  Walt Whitman left Brooklyn and went in search of his brother, but in searching, he found a vocation, a purpose, a life-giving force.  Whitman began volunteering as a nurse, of sorts, visiting soldiers, writing letters for them to their families, getting them small things they needed, listening to their stories, accompanying many in death.

Whitman felt more alive, even as he exhausted himself. He became a witness to the senseless suffering of the war, but also to a higher nobility of those who served on behalf of others. The Civil War ended up saving the Union. But even more, it offered salvation to Walt Whitman. He died at the age of 72, exhausted, with a combination of tuberculosis, mal-nutrition, and selfless living. But his suffering was very much on behalf of others and opened beauty to generations.

Jesus invites us to feel and be affected by others. Suffering that is on behalf of others can be of a particular quality.  In today’s first reading Isaiah speaks of a Suffering Servant. In words we also read on Good Friday, we typically see Jesus as the one who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. . . by whose bruises we are healed.” But the interpretation of Isaiah by faithful Jews before Jesus (and after) is also relevant. Israel understood itself as the suffering servant. As the nation suffered but remained faithful, others would be see and would be brought to God. Through the suffering of a remnant, the whole world might be saved.

The idea that redemptive suffering is communal rather than individual may sound odd in a culture as self-focused as ours.  But if I think about it for a minute, it invites me to worry less about what I, alone, might accomplish. It encourages me to think and pray about what we might all be called to do together. In what ways might we be called to suffer so that others might know redemption and life? (Not a popular question, and not a question easily answered.)

When Jesus asks James and John if they are able, he is asking if they are able to endure suffering. He is also asking if they are willing to live a life of service. Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is not built on power or greatness, but on serving one another.

Holy Trinity has a long history of community service.  We have done that and we continue to do it. St. Christopher’s Mission House has been a part of that. Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center is a part of that. Our Thanksgiving dinner preparation and deliver (which we’ll be doing next month, by the way) is a part of that.

But this parish has also offered service (a little bit of suffering alongside or suffering for) those who live in other parts of the world. The parish was active with Carpenter’s Kids, in Tanzania. Individuals have visited other places and created direct links for ongoing support and mission.  But I invite you to pray along with me about how God might be calling us to participate more fully in mission (that suffering with or suffering alongside or suffering on behalf of) people in another part of the world?

Several of our parish have visited Tanzania, and perhaps that is a place to think about. Others have relationships and we have former parishioners in Puerto Rico. Our link parish in London has a particular relationship with churches in Myanmar or Burma. Several here have supported Christians in Iraq.

Whenever we’re tempted to think like the apostles James and John and ask God “what’s in it for us?” may the Spirit remind us of Jesus’s invitation to share in his cup of service-even-unto-suffering, to share, to get involved, to sacrifice, and in so doing, be transformed more deeply into the Body of Christ. 

Each day at Morning Prayer, we conclude with a Prayer for Mission, one of which I will use now. Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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Saved

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The disciples ask Jesus a good question. “Who can be saved?”

Though we may not always use that kind of language, and though we may even be a little embarrassed by the vocabulary of “the saved,” and the “un-saved”— it’s probably a question we ask, even if we don’t put it in those exact words. Who doesn’t want to be “saved,” if “salvation” means heaven, or peace, or serenity?  It’s because we want to be “saved” in one way or another that many of us are here today.

Of course, “salvation” can look like a lot of different things, depending on our perspective.

For some, salvation looks like eternal life; for others, it might look healthy children or a healthy spouse. For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine. Salvation might look like sober, thoughtful living, it might even look like prayer.

For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation might look like equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else. Salvation might look like everyone fed, and sheltered, able to call some place, somewhere “home.”

And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as a moment or two that are worry and burden-free—not worried (for the minute) about the aging parent, no longer worried about the child who can’t quite fit in, no longer worried about the spouse who is looking for work, just no longer anxious, or preoccupied, but just alive.

Most of us do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.”

The man who approaches Jesus understands religion as “cause and effect.” “If I do these things, then these other things will happen.”  This idea can be reinforced by a concentration on the Covenant of the Old Testament, but prophets and faithful seekers poke holes in this cause and effect system even in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the reading from the Prophet Amos there’s a sense that the way of faith follows an expected pattern. But both in Amos and in our Gospel, this expected outcome ends in ambiguity.

Amos thunders about injustice and oppression. His words often indict the people, and he predicts the culture’s crumbling in, upon itself, because of its greed, because of its selfishness, because it ignores the way of God. But then Amos has these words,

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;[and] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

“It may be,” says Amos. In other words, the future of those who seek God is not set in stone. It is open for change, for growth, for repentance, for (dare I say it) salvation.

There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.

In the Gospel, we might be cheering for the man who approaches Jesus:  Yes, we follow the way of faithfulness, and in so doing, we are saved, right? 

But Jesus interrupts the man’s expectations and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.

We can get caught up on the part about selling possessions and go off on a tangent about wealth and poverty, but that’s a secondary point in Jesus’s conversation with the disciples today. 

The story continues as the disciples hear Jesus’s response to the man, and they’re confused. Here is this very good guy, who keeps all the commandments. He does exactly what the whole tradition has taught. He keeps the Sabbath day, he doesn’t lie, he certainly doesn’t murder. But then Jesus seems to reinterpret everything. He changes the rules. He broadens the perspective. In some ways he blows apart the whole idea of what it meant to follow God.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” And while Jesus doesn’t answer this question, he instead, poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And it’s that question, that Jesus answers:

It is God and God alone who does the saving. In God’s own way, in God’s own time, in God’s lavish self-giving, self-offering, overflowing love.

God saves us. God saves us from ourselves. God saves us from becoming too attached to our possessions, to our ideas, to our friends, to our family, even to our own sense of ourselves.

One interpretation can have story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. We read “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” But notice that it’s not his being rich that was the problem. The rich are neither better nor worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, he’s hesitant to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. The Bible story says he went away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.

I wonder if the man turned around and met up with Jesus the next day. We don’t know if later, after hearing about the amazing events in Jerusalem: Jesus’ crucifixion, his death on the cross, his rising again in glory… that the man might then have had a change of heart and decided to follow Jesus. The story leaves room for us to imagine. It leaves room for grace, just as our own lives—no matter where we might be in our own calling to follow Jesus, no matter what might currently stand in the way of our being more faithful disciples of Jesus, not matter what might seem to be in our way of living freely— there is room for us to respond to God. There is room for God’s justice to smash the barriers, God’s mercy to forget all sin, and God’s grace to break through and bring us closer.

From time to time, in train stations and in public places, sometimes at family reunions, we come across those earnest believers who look at us and ask, “Have you been saved?” I have a friend who has a great answer. He looks these people dead in the eye, smiles, and says, “Every day, friend. Every day, I’m saved.”

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is eager to take away whatever burdens us, whatever makes us sluggish to follow him, whatever keeps us from love. God offers to empty our hands, to take whatever we cling to, and gently lay it aside, so that our hands might be free and open—our hands and our hearts, so that we can receive the love of God and share it with others. With God, all things are possible.

Who can be saved?

Every single one of us.

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

 

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Following St. Francis in Following Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The first reading today, from the Book of Job, is more poetry than preaching—until we remember its context. If you recall the story of Job, his whole dilemma asks the question, “Why bad things happen to good people?”  “If Job, who is faithful and loyal to God, loses his family, his livelihood, and eventually even his health—what good is faith in God?”  What we hear in today’s scriptures is a part of God’s answer, or really, God’s non-answer.

These words of God can sound intimidating and almost threatening, as though God is really trying to put Job in his place, to force Job into a kind of submission. 

But instead, I think God sings this symphony of creation as an invitation to Job. Get out of yourself and be a part of life. Step into the world. Look around. Smell. Taste. Feel. Get involved. The world is far more complicated and beautiful than you have imagined. Yes, it’s painful (and the reasons for that will have to wait for another time). But for now, move into the beauty of creation.

If you looked up the scripture readings appointed for today, you will be surprised at what we’re reading in church. That’s because I’m bending the rules for what scriptures are read on which Sundays by replacing the regular Sunday readings with the readings appointed for October 4, the day for remembering St. Francis of Assisi. Like many churches, we celebrate the day with the blessing of animals, but I also think it’s important, when thinking about Francis, to notice how Francis showed reverence towards all of creation—not just the animals. And in some ways, Francis allowed creation to preach to HIM, showing him to learn humility and follow Jesus more closely. 

Francis is famous for rescuing turtledoves that were on their way to being sold in the market, for preaching among birds and having them listen with attention. But my favorite St. Francis story is about Francis and the wolf in the little town of Gubbio.

As St. Francis and his band of brothers were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio. The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen: it killed sheep and shepherd, alike. The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.” He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.

The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

Francis saw the wolf, who was frothing at the mouth and growling. The crowd stood motionless and silent. Francis stared at the wolf. Anger flashed in the wolf’s eyes and he was working his jaws, slobbering onto the ground. Francis dared not move, but he said in a simple, low, quiet voice, “Brother Wolf.” The wolf quieted down in an apparent response. “Brother Wolf,” Francis continued, “in the name of Jesus, our brother, I have come for you. We need you in the city. These people here have come with me to ask you, great ferocious one, to be the guardian and protector of Gubbio. In return we offer you respect and shelter for as long as you live. In pledge of this I offer you my hand.”

Francis stretched out his hand. The wolf seemed calm, but remained immobile, scanning the crowd. Then slowly he walked to Francis and lifted his paw into his warm, steady hand. The two remained in that position for a long time and what they said to one another Francis never told a living soul. (Murray Bodo, Francis: the Journey and the Dream (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 1988), 53.

The story of Francis taming a wolf spread, and people still tell the story. But some have suggested that the story has another meaning.

You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi. After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left. Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms.

Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions) that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.

Some have suggested that this story of Francis and the “wolf” is really a re-telling of Francis going to meet the Sultan and attempting to broker some kind of peace. But such a peace would have been bad for the business of the crusades, counter to the intentions of Rome at the time, and so (some believe) the real story of Francis’ mission of peace went underground in the form of a fairy tale about a wolf-taming.

Francis followed Jesus in many ways, but chief among them was in the way of humility.  Recall that humility is related to hummus– of the earth. To be humble is to be down to earth– not high and might, floating ABOVE the earth. But also, not hiding in a hole, or allowed dust to be kicked in your face, or stationing yourself BELOW the earth.  Down to earth. Right-sized. Understanding one’s place in creation.

That’s what God is trying to get Job to understand in today’s first reading. The story of Job is complicated and raises huge questions about why bad things happen to good people, about what use being faithful is, if calamity still comes… but God’s answer to Job is that if Job will simply be JOB and allow God to be God, Job will find that he is taken care of and that things will work out all right. God’s words to Job are also an invitation for Job to notice a little more the creation all around him, to find in creation beauty, majesty, awe… and somehow, some way, this regard for creation will center Job in the presence of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to God and gives thanks that God has hidden certain things from the wise and intelligent, but reveals them to infants.  This is another place where Jesus says that we need to be childlike in order to understand the Christian message. 

The second part of the Gospel sounds comforting and soothing, but let’s really hear those words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Ok, so far, so good. Who of us doesn’t want help carrying whatever burden we might be under… but look what comes next: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   Taking a yoke upon myself doesn’t sound all that appealing. I’m not a farm animal. After all, doesn’t God give me the intelligence I need to make good decisions, and aren’t I equipped with tools for the journey… and off I can go, rationalizing why I don’t want to “take his yoke upon me.”  I’m my own person. I can think for myself. etc, etc….

Jesus is calling us to humility. The yoke is not something rough and difficult like would be used for a farm animal. He promises it’s light. It’s invisible, in fact. But it’s strong and sure and never fades, because it’s made of love. If we allow Jesus to love us fully— every part of ourselves (the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the parts we might think are irredeemable…) … if we accept his love and try to return it, the yoke is in place, and we’re taking care of.

Jesus is inviting us to be childlike in our faith. In prayer and meditation, we sometimes lament what we call “monkey mind,” or “puppy mind,” as though out thoughts are so scattered, they’re like a puppy running in every direction. But rather than try to restrain the puppy, Jesus is inviting us to be a little more like a child who grows through exploration and play, until both he child and the puppy find calm and peace.

The life of St. Francis invites us to befriend creation, learn, and grow together. This has obvious implications for our care for the environment—not only in practical, energy and waste-saving ways, but also in deeper ways that make for lasting change. The life of Francis also reminds us of Jesus’s love of the poor—those poor in material wealth, but also those poor in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Even as we are befriended, we are to befriend. Even as Christ comes to serve us, he empowers us to serve one another.

I close with a favorite prayer of St. Francis:

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
Fiery and sweet as honey,
So absorb our hearts
As to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
To die for love of your love,
As you died for love of our love. Amen 

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Faithful instead of Falling Overboard

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

A few years ago, I read about a boat in Texas that capsized, dumping all 60 passengers into Lake Travis. Two people went to the hospital, but were eventually sent home. That kind of story might have been a tragedy, except for the fact that no one was really hurt and the reason the boat capsized. It turns out that all 60 of the passengers had crowded to one side of the boat– to try to get a better view of the nude sunbathers on the shore.

I love that story because it reminds me of what can happen when we get overly concerned about what OTHER people are doing, and lose sight of what WE should be doing.

We can sometimes get tied into a knot by worrying about what others are doing: other states (politically, or around COVID), what neighbors are doing or not doing, and even what other people of faith may be doing or not doing.

I hear the Gospel saying, “Slow down a minute, John. Fine to notice issues, people, and even other churches all around, but you’re no good to those you love, to yourself, or to me if you’re consumed by resentment, envy, anger, or hatred.” What is it in YOUR life that causes you to sin? Take care of business at home, before trying to solve all your neighbor’s problems.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel from Mark, the disciples are all in an uproar—about other disciples. It seems that there are other disciples who are casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and yet, they’re not close followers of the present group. His friends and followers, the disciples, want Jesus to criticize the others, to condemn them, and to share in the outrage.
But Jesus doesn’t go for it. Instead, he basically says that if someone is not against him, don’t worry so much about them.

We can get distracted by the force of Jesus’s words, but he’s trying to get his disciples’ attention. But I think that here, as in other conversations with his disciples, Jesus is trying to wake them up, to startle them, to shock them into listening.

Pay attention to YOUR life, Jesus says. The anger at your neighbor is killing you. Another way of putting it often suggests, “Don’t worry so much about the trash in front of your neighbor’s house, when you’ve got your own side of the street to clean up.” “Take care of your side of the street.”

Just like the disciples get worried about other disciples who are doing things a little differently, or maybe not “doing them right,” according to their way of thinking, we see a similar situation in that early community around Moses. Moses gets help from 70 elders who agree to serve as leaders among the people. But then the squabbles break out. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” a young man reports. Joshua buys into the anxiety and agrees that this is a problem. “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses says “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

This problem of losing focus on one’s own doings and starting to worry about others is not confined to the times of Moses or of Jesus. We continue to do this sort of thing both in our own church, among other churches, and outside of church.

In most churches, from time to time, a person or a group begins to feel that another person or group is getting all the attention. They’re getting all the money, the volunteers, or maybe even getting more of their share of the attention of the rector. But more often than not, if the person or group that feels ignored would simply focus a little more on their own tasks, their visibility would rise, they might get a say in the budget, and their energy and excitement would attract volunteers.

As a Christian, it’s very easy for me to worry about what others are doing—the Roman Catholics, the new incarnation of Jan Hus Church, now called “The Avenue Church,” just around the corner on 1st Avenue between 90th and 91st. I can spend time envying or fretting over what other Episcopalians are doing. I get upset by Christians speaking out on the far right, but also sometimes get annoyed with those speaking on the far left. But when I’m at my most healthy, I worry less about what everybody else is doing, and I begin to focus on what we’re doing here at Holy Trinity.

Especially at this phase in our church life, we have a lot to focus on. A few of our major leaders have died over the last couple of years—leaders who led financially, but also through being the energy behind getting things done. We feel their loss. We’ve also had a number of people move away. It didn’t feel as dramatic as some organizations—with people leaving in droves at the beginning of the pandemic—but for us, it’s been a slow trickle. But when we look around and realize that the center of gravity (attention, spiritual focus, or geography) for people we love is elsewhere, it can be scary.

And so, more than ever, Holy Trinity needs to draw on its spiritual and historical DNA of being scrappy, creative, entrepreneurial, and FAITHFUL. Faithful to who we’re called to be. Faithful to what we’re called to do. Are we reaching out as we should? Are we including everyone? Are we paying attention to our neighbors? Are we giving our time, our money, our talent to God sacrificially? Are we doing what we can to help this place be a place of welcome, refuge, joy, health, and new life?

Today’s Gospel ends by encouraging the disciples to be salty, to be distinctive, to stand out, and not to be stale, or just to fit in blandly. Too much salt can (of course) make everything taste the same, can sting, and can hurt. But with careful salting, all the other flavors are enhanced and brought to new life.

As we move towards St. Francis Day and our celebrations next Sunday, it’s good to recall the words attributed to St. Francis: That we should “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” Peaching the Gospel in our own way, in our own place, might just keep us from falling overboard in the effort to look at all the interesting things along the way!

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

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Dodging Distractions

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I try to be careful when I’m walking on the sidewalk around scaffolding. I’m not so much afraid that something might fall from above. I’m more afraid that I might not pay attention and walk into a pole. That happened to a former parishioner of mine from another church.

When I saw him in midtown, he had what looked like a black eye. I asked him if he was ok, and he assured me he was. But then, laughing, he said, “It’s probably good I ran into you. I probably need to confess something.” Well, OK, I said. Do you want to come by the church, or have coffee, or what works? And he said, “Oh, no, nothing that formal– just right now. You see, I was walking down the street and I was staring at this beautiful woman. All of a sudden, “BAM”– I walked into a scaffolding pole.” We both laughed, and I suggested that perhaps he was already living his penance… but I’ve never forgotten that black eye and use it as a warning to walk carefully. Stay focused. Don’t get distracted.

Distractions get the best of all of us sometimes, don’t they? Whether it’s in the middle of a project, while riding on a bus or the subway, while talking to a friend, or maybe (if not especially) when we’re trying to pray. Perhaps we are distracted now—the sounds outside, the instant messages or pings on a smart phone or watch, the person across the room, the light coming through the windows, unfinished conversations, things left undone.

The first reading this morning also has something to say about distractions. From the Wisdom of Solomon, there is talk about the ungodly—but when you think about them, they’re really just people who are suffering from a major case of distraction. Not only do they enjoy the good gifts of God, they become distracted by them and begin to base their lives upon it. The ungodly become so distracted by their inflated sense of power and importance that they begin to grasp for more, and they oppress those who have less.

Greatness is a distraction. Importance is a distraction. The past can be a distraction. Dwelling too much in the future, can be a distraction.

I had new insight into this morning’s Gospel a few weeks ago, when I visited family in NC. One night we went to see my nephew and his family and see my great nephew, 2 years and 4 months old. I had planned to ask my nephew about his work, my niece-in-law’s work and family, possibly sneak in a subtle question about baptism… you know. Also, I think we all had some intention of talking about plans around Christmas. But there was not time or space or energy for that—because a two-year-old was in charge.

Though children are seen and heard in ways today that they were not in Jesus’s day, I think Jesus was trying to focus his disciples in a similar way.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus has been trying to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples were distracted. Jesus and the disciples were traveling and Jesus lays it all out to them as he says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They are distracted. They are thinking about–among other things–their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?

And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s hard for me to live in the present, in this very moment, without being distracted by either the past or the future. I love the past (as I have reconstructed it, of course).

Dwelling in the past, I can hold on to old resentments, continuing to build the case to justify myself. I can replay heroic actions, like watching a videotape of me, again and again and again.

Or I live in the future. Maybe you do that too—we live in that place where we finally have the right job, where we finally meet the right person, when we finally have the right apartment or house, or ——- you can fill in the blank.

When I think of my own tendency to be so easily distracted, I can begin to understand some of what the disciples must have been dealing with. Jesus dispels the distractions of the disciples with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.”

So often, Jesus calls his disciples and us to pay attention. Notice. Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—that’s why so often in his stories, Jesus uses the salty sea water underneath, the fresh, clean water from a well, the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

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)

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun and mystic, knew the overwhelming force of distraction. As she put it in the Way of Perfection, she felt it her calling to offer a little guidance to those with “souls and minds so scattered that they are like wild horses no one can stop.” And so she offers a kind of prayer, a method of prayer, if you will, that has been called the practice of “recollection.” Teresa reminds us that the most important aspect of prayer—whether it’s at the beginning, it’s distracted and frustrated middle, and even at its ending—is to remember that God is near. God is very, very near. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult: God is near.

We have prayer. We have people. We have nature. We have NOW.

Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in New York.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.

May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.

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The Humble Power of the Cross

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

We’ve been hearing a lot of 9/11 stories and memories over the past few days, and maybe we’re tired of them. I’ve been thinking about my own 9/11 experience—less as a revisiting of the tragedy of that day, but more as I reflect on what helped me to move forward.  It has to do with religion. 

While I try to be open and supportive of people who are turned off by what they think is “religion,” and prefer to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” on 9/11 and since, I have needed some of the so-called and imagined “entrapments” of religion.

I needed the color and the smell. At the church where I worked on 9/11, we had altar cloths that were purple and black. They’re used for mourning, and they communicate both a profound sadness AND an exquisite beauty what can’t always be put into words. The lingering smell of incense worked like it has for thousands of years—to cover the smells of the world with something from another world and time.

I needed old-fashioned prayers that had been used by people in horrible circumstances long before me. Especially as I had no words to describe what I was seeing, or hearing, or feeling, I gave thanks for words of the Prayer Book to remind me of the historic faith and root me in God.

And finally, I needed the Cross. The cross is perhaps the only symbol that can so fully express the depravity, the evil, the violence of humanity; while at the same time, expressing the power of God’s love to redeem and resurrect.

September 14 is known as Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day in which the Church reflects on the cross. Often the themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, and the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.”

As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.

But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And so, the practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.

To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.

Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

We didn’t read from the Letter of James, the Epistle reading appointed for today, but James reminds us of how dangerous the “tongue” can be. He writes, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.. . . How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”

What we say and how we speak is a part of taking up our cross. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.

The Letter of James reminds us that “taking up our cross” involves loving. Taking up our cross involves loving. Taking up one’s cross is not just an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. It’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.

Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about following God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. We can sometimes cling to it and say, “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

But that’s what we see Peter trying to do in today’s Gospel.

Peter is frustrated with what appears to be Jesus’s plan with the Cross. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. Peter doesn’t see, at first, that the way forward has to be a way of humility: of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.

Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such.  It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown.  The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better.  Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.

On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

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

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Renewing Compassion, Recovering from Fatigue

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Many of you are familiar with the organization called Episcopal Relief and Development, known as ERD, for short. It offers financial and human support for people and communities who have been hit by disaster of some kind, or whose basic living conditions create a scenario of ongoing disaster. The interesting thing about ERD is that its programs and resources are only activated once a local bishop asks.  This means that resources go to people on the ground, in their community, who know what the needs are.

After the August 14 earthquake hit Haiti, we included links to ERD on our church website and in our parish newsletters a link to a way to help Haiti.

But then came Tropical Storm Henri, so we adjusted the link to simply refer to ERD’s site for donations. 

We’ve been praying for, watching, and reading about fires in the western part of the United States.

We’ve been praying for the people of Afghanistan and all the people who have served and tried to help that country through the years.

Over the last few days, we’ve been drying out after the rains and storms from and Hurricane Ida, but also mourning and trying to process the deaths and damage done by flooding.

And this week, whether we’re ready or not, many are reminding us that it has been 20 years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The theologian Karl Barth is credited with suggesting that a faithful person should begin every day with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other. But Barth died in 1968. Newspapers and the news cycle were very different back then. He was not bombarded with nightmare and tragedy, with violence, and heartache every waking hour. If we put down the newspaper, it didn’t jump up at him on his phone or computer, or in a doctor’s lobby, an airport terminal, or a taxicab.

If we’re feeling a little tired, if perhaps we would like nothing more than a weekend free of worries, it would be understandable. 

The term, “compassion fatigue” came into use in the 1990s to try to name the kind of burnout that can be experienced by caregivers– not only professional ones, but also volunteers, and those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by their own sense of compassion.  What happens, is that as emotional energy pours out of a person for others, or even for animals, one eventually is empty.  And so one can begin to be angry, or depressed, to want to isolate, to question the usefulness of one’s work, and even to develop physical ailments that basically take on the stress of others. Perhaps we hear those words from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear!,” but we hear them only faintly, as from a long, disinterested place far away.

Though I’m on risky ground applying 20th century psychological concepts to Jesus, I can’t help but notice a little compassion fatigue on the part of Jesus in the first part of today’s Gospel.

Jesus is in Tyre, a long way from home.  He’s moved beyond the familiar, out of those towns where people remember his mother and his father. He is in a northern area that today, would be in a part of Lebanon.  Though Jesus seems to be trying to get away for a little while, no sooner does he get to this out-of-the-way place, that he meets a woman who asks for his help. 

Mark the Evangelist goes out of his way to show that this woman is foreign to Jesus. Different language. Different religious background, different people. She begs Jesus to cast out a demon from her little girl. But Jesus shrugs her off, repeating what must have been an expression of his day, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It probably sounded as rude to her as it does to us. Jesus here implies that the “children” are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jesus understands his own mission (to the extent that he understands it) as being for Israel, for the Jews—not for others. And so, this woman’s problems are simply outside his purview, beyond his job description. He’s tired. He’s already healed and taught and been faithful, and just doesn’t have any more to give.

But the woman snaps back, “It may not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs— but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

And then something shifts for Jesus.  It’s as though he’s awakened and given a second wind of the Spirit. I wonder if Jesus didn’t laugh at the women’s sharpness. But through this interaction and the power of God, the little girl who is at home, is healed. And Jesus is suddenly present in a new way.

By the time of the second part of the Gospel, Jesus has had time to think about this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of her daughter, and Jesus is more careful. He’s what many would call in our day, “more mindful.”

What can we do, if we’re feeling a little bit of compassion fatigue?  There are lots of things, and a number of them have to do with taking care of oneself and practicing appropriate boundaries. Now, I realize this can sound a bit like the “wellness” column from the Times, but it’s also deeply biblical and deeply faithful to make sure that oneself is grounded, connected to God, and as full of God’s Spirit as possible, before being of any real use to God and the world. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer notes well, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation)

Jesus returns to more familiar territory in Galilee, and some people bring him a man who has a speech impediment. But notice the sorts of things Jesus does.  

First, Jesus sets boundaries.  He takes the man away from the crowd, so there’s a quiet place. They can talk. They can relate. They can be present with each other and God without the pressure of the crowd.

Next, Jesus gets grounds himself and gets physical and particular. He embodies his faith and healing energy by using touch: He puts his fingers in the man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue.  No social distancing here–but that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus is grounded, right there with the man, as human as the other is, and yet, both, available and open to the healing power of God.

Then, Jesus strengthens his connection with God. He prays. Jesus prays, “Ephphatha,” be opened. In so doing, Jesus is connecting with God, the source of healing and strength and love. Jesus is acknowledging his own limitations, and being clear that if healing comes, it comes from God and God alone. Some have named the idea that we can do it all ourselves, that we MUST do it all ourselves, that we have all the responsibility and things won’t happen if we don’t do them—this is a kind of “functional atheism.” We live and work and stress out as though God were NOT.  But here, Jesus remembers that it is God who can do all things. And guess what– the man speaks and begins to hear.

So let’s review.  If you’re feeling tired of all the pain in the world—close by and far away, if you’re noticing that you’re getting impatient with other people’s needs,

Check your boundaries.
Get grounded.
Connect with God.
Be renewed.

There are a number of stories and sayings about the 18th century Polish Rabbi Zusya.  My favorite is from a story Zusya told his congregation.

One day Rabbi Zusya stood before his congregation and he said,  When I die and have to present myself before the celestial tribunal, they will not ask me,  ‘Zusya why were you not Moses?’ because I would say ‘Moses was prophet and I am not.’

They will not say ‘Zusya, why were you not Jeremiah?’ for  I  would say ‘Jeremiah was a writer, and I am not.’

And they will not say ‘Why were you not Rabbi Akiba?’ for I would tell them, ‘Rabbi Akiba was a great teacher and scholar and I am not.’

But then they will say ‘Zusya why were you not  Zusya?’ and to this I will have no answer.

Karl Barth is probably right to imagine a faithful person with the news in one hand and the Bible in the other, but sometimes, out of faith, we need to put down one or the other, and breathe. Check boundaries. Get grounded. Connect with God, and be renewed.

Especially when our hearts are heavy, may the Spirit remind us of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11: 28-29.

 

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Living from the Inside Out

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to any who would be tempted to place outward appearances over inward realities.

Jesus is dealing with the dedicated religious of his day, the Pharisees and the scribes. The scribes preserved the Law of God. Form was their business, and had it not been for the scribes, much of the tradition would have been lost. The scribes were the memory, the archives, and the tradition of the Jewish faith.

The Pharisees were the seriously religious of Jesus’ day. Though they are harshly criticized for often failing to see what God was doing in their midst, they were nonetheless the people who cared, the people who were most concerned with God, the people who most tried to follow God.

The Pharisees and scribes see Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. From their point of view, those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.

Mark, the Gospel-writer, gives us a little more background of these folks. He says “The Pharisees do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?

It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our words—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

But it’s easy to get caught up in the outward form of religion and forget the substance.
Some years ago, after I was first ordained, I was set to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a weekday service at my church. Ten or fifteen people, at most, would usually be at that service. But I also knew that the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, probably the preeminent liturgical (or worship) scholar in the Episcopal Church, was visiting. When I came out to begin the service, there he was: second row on the right. I was self-conscious about everything. I worried about how I stood, was my voice right? My pacing? Was my orans (the use of my arms in prayer) too narrow like a field goal post, or too wide like a group hug? On and on, I went, worrying about the details. It’s a testimony to a loving God that I was able to get through the service and the bottom line was reached: everyone fed, and no one got hurt.

After the service, I greeted the handful of people and then I went over to Father Weil. I asked him if he noticed anything about my celebration that stood out or was wrong. Did I forget anything? Was I too fast or too slow, too deadpan or too dramatic? Did I do anything annoying or distracting? Father Weil looked at me with the most incredulous expression. “Oh John,” he said, “I have no idea. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was here to worship.”

Whether he was telling me the absolute truth or not (and he probably was), I got the point. When our faith only follows forms and rules and conventions, we’re like those cutout figures—less than our reality, less than our potential, shadows of the people God has created us to be.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the details—for the Pharisees it might have been the washing of hands in just the right way, at just the right time. For us– who knows what it might be?
Today’s Gospel speaks to newcomers and to long-term church folks. To newcomers, Jesus is saying, don’t get caught up on the details, for now. Focus on what’s inside—following Jesus, loving God, being made new by the Holy Spirit. Don’t get too caught up on whether you cross yourself at the right time or kneel in just the right spot.

To those of us who have been around for a while, Jesus asks us to think about our piety and religious practices. Do our outward actions flow from our inward experiences and beliefs? Are we being called to change anything, or re-evaluate, or perhaps adopt some new spiritual practice?

It is from within that bad things can come. And it is from within that all the mercy, grace, forgiveness, insight, wisdom, and love of God-working-through-us can come.

There’s an ancient prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help, for God to integrate us in the fullness of his image. May it be our prayer as we seek to integrate what’s inside with what’s outside:

May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

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

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Christmas in August

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

If you think today’s Gospel is sounding a little familiar, it’s not the heat and humidity that is taking its toll. It’s that the Gospels for weeks, now, all seem to talk about bread. Maybe it’s because the Church thinks people are coming and going during the summer weeks, so we’d better have a lot of Sundays that suggest a similar point, to make sure everyone hears the message. Or maybe it’s because it’s picnic season, and we might relate better to the stories of Jesus’s feeding of the thousands, and then the disciples remembering that Holy Picnic, the way we might fondly recall a family get-together, an outing, or a special event that included food. 

Or, maybe it’s because the Church wants us to celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer.

What do I mean by that?  Well, Christmas is the primary celebration of the Incarnation, of the birth of Jesus, of the “Word made flesh.”  In late November or December, we lead up to Christmas, and then the Epiphany invites us to reflect on what Christmas (or the Incarnation) means for us.  And so–I’m wondering–if the scriptures are inviting us to have a little Christmas in August.

What made me think of this is my reading a book by the Paulist priest, Father Tom Ryan. And a quotation by Fr. Ryan made me think about the way I often speak of Jesus. I tend to write, and pray, and speak about “God coming into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.”  You and I know what I mean by that, but my phrasing is problematic, if we think about it theologically. God was already in the world. The Word was already in the world, just like the Gospel of John proclaims; just like Genesis implies.

And here’s where Fr. Ryan helps me.  He writes:

It is not so much that the Word entered the world; it is rather that the Word became flesh. In the Incarnation, Jesus in his flesh took the world as part of himself. The world quite literally became the body of God. Since God is identified with and discovered within this bodiliness, this fleshiness, this materiality, this sensuality, we have no right to dismiss the world as some second-rate practice field for the real life in heaven. The Incarnation states that there is no practice and nothing is second-rate. Life in this world is the life of God. (Thomas Ryan, CSP, Prayer of hearty and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Paulist Press, 1995.)

And so, it means that as people of faith, we should take our bodies seriously, and treat the bodies of others as sacred vessels. It means we should treat all of creation as potentially revealing the presence of God.

And it explains how when we eat blessed bread, we are eating the body of Christ, the life of God, given for us. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

These bready passages we read and reflect on in summer are to remind us of flesh-and-blood existence of God, of the giftedness of our bodies, the mixture of material with spiritual and spiritual with material, and to invite us to be more open to encountering God in ourselves, in others, and in the hear-and-now. Merry Christmas on this August 15.

But August 15 also coincides with another reminder of the Incarnation. In our tradition, the Prayer Book Calendar simply lists August 15 as Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics know it as the Assumption of Mary, imagining her death as being mysteriously taken up into the fullness of God’s love, and the Orthodox know it as the Dormition, of Mary’s “falling asleep.”

But just like the Virgin Mary did at the Wedding of Cana, and at Calvary, and in art history– the point her commemoration on August 15 is to remind us of the Incarnation. The Word became Flesh– by fleshy, noisy, painful, human means through Mary.

Beverly Gaventa is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches at Baylor, and she suggests at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.

Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. And that’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.

And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. We have all probably seen in icons and art the classic posture showing the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. Often, Mary is pointing very subtly to Jesus, as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”  (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

The Christmas Message is Rejoice: God is with Us.  
The Message of Mary is Rejoice: Christ will show you the way. 
The Message of Jesus is Rejoice: Eat and drink my body, my presence, my strength, my faith, and your own body will be brought to God in this life and in the next.

As the Psalmist sings so beautifully, “Taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are they who trust in him!” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Raised Up (In this life and the next)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I read or hear today’s Gospel, I think of the hymn, “I am the Bread of Life.”  It’s one of those hymns in which the words don’t quite match the music of each stanza and it can feel like a challenge to sing, if you’re new to it.  But by the time we reach the refrain, everybody’s joining in with, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

My colleagues and friends at a previous church used to joke with me as they observed that I usually managed to be away on a particular Sunday in late summer. They thought I was trying to avoid that hymn, because I would often grumble about it, whenever we sang it. But it wasn’t the hymn I minded. I love the hymn. The problem, for me, was in that place, where the organist would try to make this folksy, popular hymn from the 1960s into a concert piece with all the stops of a giant organ working – almost against any hope of the people hearing themselves sing. But make no mistake—I like the hymn, and I love it’s message.

The hymn’s message is important because it helps us, as Christians, express one of the central tenets of our faith: God raised up Jesus and God will raise us up. Resurrection is the beginning and the end of our faith. It’s the core of what it means to be a Christian. In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has often been the test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ. But sometimes the resurrection of Jesus has become a kind of litmus test for orthodoxy, and that misses part of the point, I think.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the point of his rising is to raise up others, to raise up you and me, that we might walk tall and strong in this life, and that we might join one another in the next.

Throughout the Gospel stories, the Greek word that we translate as “rise up” [anistemi] occurs again and again. The man who is healed of a withered hand, the daughter of Jairus, the prodigal son rises up and goes to see his father.

Jesus also uses the same word when he is talking with the disciples about the Son of Man, he says that the Son of Man will be delivered over to the people, mocked, spitefully treated and spit upon, and they will put him to death; but on the third day he will rise again.

In this life Jesus raises up—sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually. He raises up the sick and the wounded. He raises up those who are brought down low by others. The Blessed Virgin Mary sings of this in her song, proclaiming what God has already done for her and for others: “He has lifted up the lowly.” And he lifts up still and he empowers us to be his hands in the word to help lift up others.

Christ lifts us up in this life, but he also lifts us up into the next. The Church teaches that through his death on the cross and his descent into hell, he has gone through the very worst of what evil and death can do. No matter how lonely, no matter how painful, no matter how horrible—Jesus has endured it. And he has overcome it. With his resurrection, we are given the power through God to make it through anything death can deal us. With the power of Christ we too rise to new life, we rise to everlasting life.

The Eastern theologian and catechist, [7th century Byzantine] Maximus the Confessor worked hard to help people understand and believe basic Christian beliefs. Underlying all of his teaching is God’s intention to raise up all things and bring them to a new and extraordinary place in the presence and the heart of God. Maximus wrote, “…it is clear that He who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically [Maximus writes] when he says, ‘…that in the ages to come [God] might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).”(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II) According to Maximus, God is working to bring all thing together and to raise them up.

In our Old Testament lesson, it’s Elijah who gets raised up—but not in such a dramatic way as at the end of his life. Here, the “raising” can almost be overlooked.  If we were to read more widely in First Kings, we would recall how the prophet Elijah, several times, got to the point of almost giving up. He had been doing his best, but it didn’t feel like it counted for anything. The most serious threat had become real: that because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, was after his head. No place was safe. People weren’t listening, and so, in readings like today’s, Elijah begins to feel sorry for himself. He prays to God to take away his life. And then he goes and sits under tree and falls asleep.

But an angel wakes him up. Who knows if this angel is a winged thing come out of heaven, or a woman from down the street with something to eat, or a child who comes by and knows where there’s good food. Something stirs Elijah. Something rouses him that is of God, and so it is an angel, a messenger of God who says to Elijah in some way or another, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.” Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger.

That’s the way it works so often. We are raised up by one another—when we feel the prayers of other people, they sometimes feel like we’re being given a boost, and we are raised up.

When someone offers us a hand or a kind word, and we though nobody noticed how down we were, we are raised up. When someone offers another way of seeing a quandary or tackling a problem, we are raised up.

Last year, about this time, we had reopened the church for about a month, and we were extremely careful to keep our masks on, throughout. Because of this, it was sometimes hard for me to recognize certain people. One day, after the service, a woman was lingering in the pews, so I stopped by. I wasn’t sure I knew her, so I introduced myself.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and said, “thank you.”  “Thank you so much for being here.”  I again said my name, and then she said hers and explained that over the summer, it had felt like her life had fallen apart. A parent had died. A relationship had ended. Her friends had moved out of the city, and her workplace was having trouble coordinating remote work. She had just moved in, across the street from the church on Saturday, was worn out, and fell asleep. She woke up on Sunday morning and noticed the doors open, so she came in, and she was dazzled by the space, the music, the feeling, and a word of hope she heard that morning. She received Communion for the first time in years, and it fed her.

This worshipping community, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, raised her up that day, for at least another day, another season, and time for a new start.  Her life has gotten busy and full again, but she occasionally stops in to reconnect and to add her part in the life of God’s spirit to raise up.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

Let us give thanks to God that we have been raised up; we are being raised up, and that on the last day, we will be raised up into the full love of God.

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

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