Baptized for Action

Water tableA sermon for August 18, 2019, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The thing I remember most about my confirmation in the Episcopal Church was the slap.  Some of you may be familiar with the old tradition of after a bishop confirms someone, the bishop sometimes adds a slight slap to the confirmand’s cheek, or simply touches it.  Some say it’s a carry over from when Roman soldiers were conscripted into military service as a reminder to be touch, be reach, there are battles out there to be fought, and every day will not be an easy one.  Especially because I was confirmed in adulthood, had read tons of history about the confirmation rite, my rector told Bishop Taylor, “be sure to give John a good slap. He’ll be disappointed if you don’t.”  Well, you could have heard the slap throughout the church.  Rather than hurt, it made me laugh, so then I had the problem of trying to contain my laughter at one of the holiest moments imaginable.

A few years ago, we were planning for a bishop to visit church and offer confirmations, so I asked the diocesan official helping us plan, “Is he a ‘slapping’ bishop?”  “Certainly not,” was the answer I got, and I was a little disappointed.  In a day like ours when people of faith are called upon to stand up for justice, for goodness, for truth, for kindness, and for love—we could use a few “slapping bishops” leading us forward.

In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do.  Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.

There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions?  An Episcopal Church!  This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ.  Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.

In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.

Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history.  How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways?  How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith?  Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals.  Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.

Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision.  St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need.  That was 120 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short.  A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897.  We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s.  But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us.  Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding:  speak God’s word.  Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.

The Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.

At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries.  This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 2019, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.

This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided.  We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.

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

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Out of Fear

faith

A sermon for August 11, 2019, the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22 , Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, and Luke 12:32-40

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On Thursday night, we got caught in the thunderstorm.  Rather than wait it out, I decided to run the two blocks home.  My foot decided that was not a very good idea, and so after I felt something “pop,” if knew I had done some kind of damage.  I planned to see a doctor on Friday morning, but for Thursday, the fears all set it:  What if I had broken something? What if I need surgery? What if I can’t drive next weekend for a conference in which I’ve agreed to take people and celebrate the Eucharist?  What if I can’t exercise the way I’ve been doing, and get completely out of shape, depressed, and useless?  On and on, the fears go. When I saw the doctor on Friday, it turned out to be far less involved than I had imagined.  I pulled something. I need to stay off my foot and be patient, but didn’t do any major damage and certainly don’t need surgery.

All that energy that went into fear and worry—but we’re often like that, aren’t we?

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about our fears a little bit. They invite us to think about what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.

In Genesis, the word of God comes to Abram saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  “Don’t be afraid, because God’s going to be like a shield, protecting, no matter what.  And what’s even more—God’s going to provide Abram and Sara with a child.  Even better than that, not just one child, but they’re going to be blessed with generations as plentiful as the stars.

Abram must have worried and must have feared.  But through the promise of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future.  His name change to Abra-ham signifies that something big has happened, and he lived on to be the ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram is able to move through his fear and follow God.

The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn.  It’s a hymn to faith, really—“faith,” being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeys, and looks, and follows. By faith, Sarah laughs, and follows, and conceives. Meditating on people like Abraham and Sarah, the author of Hebrews gives us a famous definition of faith: that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.”

Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen.  Sometimes that’s a good thing (like being afraid of tics in the woods or sharks in the water).  But often on land, and in our lives, fear can stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.

Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie that for many of us, has been our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London.  But she’s orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And in every direction there are dreary characters. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, won’t come out because years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still remembers what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, because it’s God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I think God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck— God wants to pull us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.” He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”

If you think about the people Jesus meets in the Gospel, so often, they are people who are stuck, in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins.  They’re stuck in other people’s stories about them.  Or they’re stuck in some warped perspective that creates a world so narrow they can hardly breathe.  Think about some of those people:

There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, she’s caught in her reputation. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place and she’s afraid. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.

There’s Zaccheus the tax collector who is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.

There’s Mary Magdalene, on that first Easter morning.  She leaves her fear in the empty tomb and she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. She’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is wherever God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.

This summer, some of us may be staying right where we are.  In life, some of us might not move very far away from one place.  But no matter who we are or where we are, Jesus calls us to move—to move out of whatever fearful place keeps us from stepping forward in faith.  The First Letter of John reminds us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”

May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim the faith of the saints, and to live into God’s good kingdom.

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

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Richness out of Poverty

generous spirit

A sermon for August 3, 2019, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21

(Sorry, but due to technical problems, there was no recording today.)

On a day in which we wake up to more news about shootings—one is El Paso yesterday, and another in Dayton last night—our first Reading from Ecclesiastes might come close to suiting our mood. “All is vanity.”  When we “apply our minds to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it [can seem] an unhappy business that God has given to human beings to be busy with.” We work hard, we try to live good lives, we do our best with children and relatives. We inform ourselves on the issues and march, vote, protest, write, and try to stand for justice, but then, as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes puts it, “For all [our] days are full of pain, and [our] work is a vexation; even at night [our] minds do not rest.”  And even this, is vanity. Easier to read about Duchess Meghan’s birthday today (it will be a quiet affair, maybe with tea at Balmoral.) Or celebrate Barack Obama’s birthday today and reminisce about a president who could be articulate and kind. “All is vanity,” anyway, right?

Well, no.  The story of our faith doesn’t end with Ecclesiastes.  The world weariness is overwhelmed by the Word made Flesh.  God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus the Christ changes everything.  It lifts us out of the doom of the devil and the dead end of cynicism.  Christ leads us in the difficult direction of hope.  He leads us in the painful way of love.  He teaches us how to find love in the presence of hatred, life in the presence of death, and richness in the midst of poverty.

Jesus suggests that we should be “rich toward God.”  When we’re poor in money, poor in spirit, or poor in faith, we might wonder how on earth we’re to do this, but that’s again where Christ comes through and gives us what we need.

Jesus has been talking with a group, probably a group of bystanders and some of the disciples. He’s been warning them about hypocrisy and trying to help them understand what it means to live a life completely dedicated to God.

In this context, a man asks Jesus to take his side in a question over an inheritance. We don’t know the exact nature of this man’s question, but biblical scholars would point out that the reality of Jewish inheritance laws at that time held that the eldest son inherited twice the amount that might have gone to a younger sibling. Perhaps the speaker in the Gospel is one of the younger brothers.

I don’t know about you, but the part of me that longs for a world that is fair and just wishes that Jesus would take the man’s side. But that’s not the real issue here. Like he does in so many other situations, Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question. Instead, he goes right to the spiritual question.

Jesus uses the moment to point out to the crowd that the real issue is about where one’s heart is. It’s not about who has more money, or more stuff, or more power, or more prestige. It’s about how we use it. It’s not about how big the wedding is—it’s about whether you invite God or not.

Then Jesus tells the parable about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain because he is disconnected from God. The real issue has to do with our relationship with what we have. Does it lead us closer to God and God’s people? Or does it drive a wedge between ourselves and all that is holy? Jesus says we need to be “rich toward God.”

Being “rich toward God” has to do with the currency of things.

We speak of the “currency” of things because they move around, they go from one person to the next, they have a life and rhythm to them. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.

It’s that way with the currency of money, the currency of our relationships, and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.

Being rich toward God does involve money, at some point, and with the risk involved of letting go. I grew up in a church in which members tried to outdo one another in giving—anonymously. Over and over, again, there would be some major gift to the parish, some program, some extra music, some new mission begun—with a grant from an anonymous donor. That’s living richly toward God.

Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God’s people, how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. What would it be like if we lived richly toward one another, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger might fit in or not?

And finally, how do we spend our time? Do we give any of it to God—for God’s use, as well as simply time to be with God, to allow God to draw us closer through prayer, through reading of the Bible, through worship? All of this has to do with being rich toward God.

When I think of richness, I certainly think of Bill and Melinda Gates and their active philanthropy.  I think of Robert F. Smith, the amazing donor who is paying off all the student debt of the Morehouse Class of 2019. But I also think of the richness of spirit shown by a woman on the Select M-15 bus yesterday.  If you know the “select service,” you know that one has to obtain a paper ticket out of the kiosk at the various sidewalk stations.  Then, one simply gets on the bus and only shows the ticket, if asked—usually at random stops when getting off the bus, when the Transit Police do their checks.
Yesterday, we got our tickets in time for the bus and got on.  We noticed a man sort of angrily mumbling to himself about a ticket.  I slowly realized that he hadn’t quite understood the difference between the select bus and the regular bus, and so he had no ticket and was angry about the confusion. This being New York on a hot Saturday morning, most everyone simply ignored the man—perhaps he had emotional problems, or psychological problems, or drug problems.  But then, a woman who was sitting near him began to engage him and try to explain the bus system.  He said a little more, but seemed unconvinced about the system or what should happen next.  After a few minutes of his mumbling, the woman then said, “Look, I’m getting off on the next stop.  Why don’t you take my ticket in case anyone asks you for one. Ok?”  The man’s who attitude changed.  The anger went away.  He kept mumbling, but his frustration actually turned to flirting, as he reacted to the fact that a nice person had helped him—and that nice person happened to be a pleasant-looking woman.  She got off a the next stop, and the man got quiet, holding his new ticket.

We see these little acts of kindness all the time, and at our best—perhaps we perform some of them. They are reminders that we don’t have to be wealthy to be generous; we don’t have to have a lot of money to be rich. And even when we’re poverty-stricken– in spirit, in faith, or in money, the love of Christ gives us something to hold on to and to share.

May the Holy Spirit save us from cynicism and help us to live in richness of spirit.

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

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Knocking on the Door of Prayer

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldA sermon for July 28, 2019, the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Genesis 18:20-32, Psalm 138, Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19), and Luke 11:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I was talking with a friend this week about a book on prayer.  I told her that I thought I had read it. As she mentioned the section of the book that she has found so helpful, I kept wondering, “HAVE I read this book?  Did I hear about it?”  Later, I looked at home, and sure enough: there it was on my shelf. But it still looks new.  I have not read it.

I’m often interested in prayer—new ways of praying, how other people pray, what people have experienced in their prayers.  But sometimes, I do this INSTEAD OF PRAYING.  I get hung up on technique and skill, forgetting that the basic thing about prayer is simply to do it!

I understand the disciples in today’s Gospel.  They’ve seen the disciples of John the Baptist, and they want to have special prayers like John’s disciples.  Who knows exactly how John and his disciples prayed, but however it was, it was impressive.

In the forgiveness of his mercy, Jesus looks at his disciples (and us) with compassion, and gives us the prayer we know as The Lord’s Prayer. It can be disappointingly simple. It is not fancy and does not seem very mystical. But it’s impressive in the only way that really matters: it works.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gives a pattern for prayer, a set of words to use, to store up and recall when we need them. But Jesus even more, Jesus gives us a relationship. He shows us a door, an opening, a way for conscious contact with God.

In the Lord’s Prayer we are given the picture of a Father who cares and never forgets us. God will provide. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Last week, we heard about how Abraham and Sarah learned this from the angels who came to visit. Until then, Abraham and Sarah had their doubts about whether God was listening, but by the point of today’s reading, Abraham and God are like familiar friends to the point that Abraham and God are engaged in a kind of “holy haggling.”

The back story to what Abraham is asking God is a complicated one.  It seems like Abraham has no idea what he’s asking. He has no idea just how awful the people of Sodom really are, or he probably would not have asked God to show mercy at all.  Sodom and what is called “Sodomy” has come into our language through a misreading and misunderstanding of scripture.  What happens in Genesis is that the angels who meet Abraham and Sarah in last week’s reading, move on and go into Sodom.  There they meet Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and Lot invites them in for food and to stay.  The men of Sodom are a mean, evil bunch. They demand that the strangers be turned out to them, be given over to them.  The men of Sodom want to use them and violate them.  Lot does the almost unimaginable thing of protecting his guests, but giving his daughters to the townsmen.  It’s an awful story about the lust and violence and bullying of people, and Lot shows himself no better, though his daughters do get back at him near the end.  It’s one of those old, old stories shrouded in confusion and mystery, but the point is clear that God wipes out Sodom because it did not welcome the stranger, did not show hospitality to the angels, and could not contain its own insecure lust and drive for dominance.  As scripture teaches, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2).

But all of this is an aside.  Abraham is able to talk with God as a trusted friend, and that’s what Jesus is offering.  Knock at the door.  Say hello.  Begin the conversation.

In talking with his disciples about prayer, about knocking on the door of God’s heart, Jesus uses images and sayings from his own day.  He mentions a sleepy neighbor who might not get up for just anyone, but with persistence, will answer the door.  Jesus speaks of “you who are evil,” and I think it’s important for us to hear that Jesus is simply chatting with his friends here.  This is not a formal, moral pronouncement.  It’s more like Jesus is saying, “Look, you know how you are, on your worst day.  Even on that day, you wouldn’t give your kid a deliberately bad thing when she asked for something simple.  Imagine how much more, then, God looks after you!’

St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians explains just why we have the potential for relationship with God, just why we can have the confidence and faith to walk up to the door and knock, or begin to ask God for help.  Paul reminds us that God lives in Christ fully, totally, completely; and we have the life of God in us because of Christ.  In Christ we were “buried with him in baptism,” and we are raised with him above the death of sin, and we will be raised like him from death itself.  Paul goes on to say basically, “don’t forget who you are, and whose you are.  Don’t let people drag you into silly debates about this detail or that detail, what you should pray for, or how you should pray, or whether you should pray kneeling, with hands folded, or arms spread out, or standing on your head, for that matter!  Hold fast to Christ, the Head of the Church, “from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

Ask.  Knock.  Hold on.

If we lack the courage to knock on the door, we can remember another scripture in which it’s Jesus who is knocking on the door. In Revelation 3, Jesus says, “I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”

This passage is illustrated beautifully in the famous painting of Jesus entitled, “Light of the World.” The painting is by William Holman-Hunt and one copy is in a side chapel of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  People line up to see it and huddle around it.  Jesus stands in a doorway holding a lantern. As one commentator points out:

The door represents the human soul, which cannot be opened from the outside. There is no handle on the door, and the rusty nails and hinges overgrown with ivy denote that the door has never been opened and that the figure of Christ is asking permission to enter. The morning star appears near Christ, the dawn of a new day, and the autumn weeds and fallen fruit represent the autumn of life.

We have courage to knock on the door of prayer because Christ has already knocked on the door of our heart.

Christ offers to take us by the hand and help through any door.  We don’t need to worry about how we pray and it doesn’t matter if we get tongue-tied. The only thing that matters is that we ask and have the faith to walk through the door.

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

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Paying Attention

Mary and Martha-QiA sermon for July 21, 2019, the scriptures are Genesis 18:1-10a, Psalm 15 , Colossians 1:15-28, and Luke 10:38-42.

Listen to the Gospel and a short version of the sermon HERE. (Because of an excessive heat warning, the sermon is slightly shorter than usual.)

Simone Weil was a French philosopher who struggled with Christianity at a very deep level. Among her thoughts, written down in her notebooks, was an oft-quoted sentence about paying attention. “Absolute attention,” she writes, “is prayer.”

In the lesson from Genesis we see what happens when Abraham and Sarah simply pay attention. Abraham could have ignored the three strangers. He could have simply gone on about his business when he saw them. He could have been afraid of getting involved. He might have “passed by on the other side,” like some of those in the Good Samaritan story last Sunday. But instead, Abraham went out of his way to show hospitality. He seems to have recognized something special about them, some hard-to-put-your-finger-on quality. Perhaps it was holiness. Perhaps it was simply honesty. But whatever it was he saw, Abraham decided that it was worth the risk of being hospitable. And so, Abraham brings some water and lets the strangers wash up; he brings some bread, and dinner is served.

Abraham’s hospitality not only feeds strangers and makes for community. It also creates space. Henri Nouwen, in his classic little book, Reaching Out, explains that true hospitality does create space. It creates a free and friendly space for the other. Nouwen talks about the difference in visiting a friend who has every moment scheduled and planned, where the rules are firm and the expectations clear. This is very different, he notes, than visiting a friend who says, “Here is a key to my house. The refrigerator is stocked and what’s mine is yours. I hope you will feel at home.”

The way in which Abraham and Sarah receive the strangers creates space, allows for mystery and opens the way for a miracle. It is these three strangers who turn out to be angels of the Lord, with the outrageously good news that Sarah is going to bear a child.

Abraham and Sarah were able to be attentive. They were able to be absolutely attentive. They found that absolute attention is prayer, that absolute attention can allow one to see the miraculous movement of God.

In today’s Gospel, there is both attention and activity.

Martha is very active. She is busy, involved, and committed. I’ve always liked Martha. She works hard, she doesn’t suffer fools gladly and she makes things happen. I always pray for more Martha’s to be around in my church kitchen. But Martha also scares me a little, because I see a lot of her in myself.

Mary, on the other hand, is contemplative. She is quiet, calm, prayerful and deeply, DEEPLY attentive. She attends. She apprehends. She GETS Jesus; and all that he brings; and all that he means; and all that he promises; and all that he fulfills. It is because of this deep attention, this prayerfulness, that Mary is able to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, as God Incarnate, as God Among Us. It is because of her attentiveness that Mary has (in the words of Jesus) “chosen the better part.”

While Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part, notice that he in no way criticizes or scolds Martha. It’s only when Martha has become exhausted, when she is frustrated and angry and tries to get Jesus to side with her over her lazy sister that Jesus helps Martha see what she is doing. He slows her down. He asks her to breathe. “Martha,” he says, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”

This one thing that is needful might be called prayer. It might be called “the ability to see clearly, to apprehend a thing or a person for its true qualities.” It might also be called simply, “attention.”

Anthony de Mello tells a story about someone practicing this quality of “attention.”

Disciple: “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”

Teacher: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

Disciple: “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

Teacher: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
(Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, 1998.)

The Church invites us to practice paying attention. These moments are called Sacraments. Prayer is the practice of paying attention. Holy Communion is the activity of giving attention, to God and to one another.

May the Holy Spirit slow us down and help us be attentive. May the Spirit help us, like Abraham and Sarah, to see miracles in our midst, and like Martha and Mary, to eat and drink and rest with Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

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Being Neighborly

HelpingA sermon for July 14, 2019 (the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost).  The scriptures are Deuteronomy 30:9-14, Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14, and Luke 10:25-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel contains a famous story, the story of the Good Samaritan.  Even those who may never go to church are often familiar with the basic outline of the story: that of a person who is left by the side of the road for dead, and then of all the people who pass by, a foreigner—about whom there were all kinds of cultural assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices—is the one who offers help.  Of course, the story offers a nice moral and serves as a gentle reminder for us to be helpful, to live on the lookout for those in need, and for us to remember to practice charity.  But the story goes much deeper if we notice the context of Jesus’ telling.

The story comes in a conversation Jesus is having with a young lawyer.  We don’t know if the lawyer is serious at the beginning, or not.  He could be genuinely asking Jesus about eternal life, or he might be trying to show off, to score points in front of his friends and impress the visiting holy man.  And so he asks Jesus his question and Jesus responds with another question, “What does the law—meaning the teaching of Moses, the inherited and interpreted law of God—what does the law say?  How do you read it?”  The man piously quotes back to Jesus the famous teaching of Israel, the Shema, one of the first things a Jewish kid might learn, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ead,”  Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  The lawyer knows his basics, and Jesus says, “You’re right, you’ve given the right answer.”

And at this point in the story, I imagine Jesus is ready to move on.  There are people to heal and hearts to reach.  This lawyer seemed to want recognition from Jesus, and he got it, he got what he wanted.  But then, just as Jesus is moving away “wanting to justify himself, [the man] asks Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’”

I love that phrase “wanting to justify himself.”  There’s a lot in those few words.  The translation by Eugene Peterson (The Message) makes the lawyer’s intention a little clearer:  Peterson’s version says, “[But] Looking for a loophole, [th]e lawyer asked, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?”

The lawyer asks about his neighbor not out of concern for the neighbor, but to justify himself, to make himself look good, to make sure that he’s doing what he needs to do somehow to please God or make God love him.

I stumble on that little phrase because the lawyer’s motivation is familiar to me.  That’s the sort of thing I might ask Jesus—well, which neighbor?  The lady who gets seems to scam people at the intersection or the guy who begs and then goes and spends the money at the liquor store?  Are they my neighbors?  What about the ones in far away places whose pictures are used for fundraising—if I send money, will it get to them?  Should I help those who don’t care a thing for me, or my tribe, or my country, or my religion? (I get creative trying to justify myself and can spend quote a bit of time doing that– all the while, the neighbor in need has either been helped by someone else or has simply vanished.)

The young lawyer wants to justify himself, and so, Jesus then tells the story of the Good Samaritan.  He tells the story to try to explain to the man who his neighbor is, what his neighbor might look like.  But even more, Jesus tells this story to change the focus of the lawyer.  With every word, every look, every move, Jesus has communicated that God is love and Christ brings God’s love to all people.  There’s nothing to do to earn it, or argue for it, or win it, or buy it.  There’s no loophole to exploit. There’s no self-justification.  Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan in an artful and compassionate way to say to the lawyer—“this isn’t about you.”  It’s about helping someone in need.  It’s about service.  You want mystical religion?  You want a spiritual experience?  You want to see God?  Then offer yourself to another in service, and strange things will happen.  You’ll find yourself a part of God’s kingdom—unfolding, transforming, making a new heaven and earth.

The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates this.  The man going to Jerusalem is robbed and beaten.  A priest walks by but is probably late for an appointment.  Maybe he’s told someone else he would meet them, or is expected elsewhere.  He might have good reasons for passing on, but whatever those reasons were, they don’t help them the poor man on the side of the road.

Next a Levite passed by.  The Levites had particular responsibilities, especially related to the synagogue.  They were busy people. They were important people and they were concerned with God’s law, too—in macro-ways, in institutional ways, in communal ways.  The Levite might have had very good reasons for passing by, but again, the man by the road is still hungry and hurt.

But the Samaritan does help.  Why?  Somehow, he’s jolted out of his own head, out of his own needs for self-justification or approval. He’s able to move out of weighing the pros and cons of the situation.

What jolted the Samaritan out of his own head?  Out of his own routine?  Out of his own sense of importance?  It may have been that he recalled a time when he had been helped.  Or it may have been because he saw something in the other person that reminded him of someone he once knew and loved.  Or it might even have been because the Samaritan was simply oriented outward, he aimed his energy, his affection, and his interest toward other people.

Jesus says to the young lawyer, “It’s not about you.”  Jesus says the same thing to me and to you and to all who want to know God, experience life in its fullest terms.  It’s about service; about serving one another.

The Good Samaritan in scripture works as an example for us, but sometimes I’m helped by examples in our own day.  Sister Norma Pimentel shows up in the news from time to time as the voice and witness of someone who works among immigrants at the US border in Brownsville, Texas. If you read the words of Sister Norma or hear an interview with her, you’ll hear echoes of the Good Samaritan.  [If you don’t know of her, look her up online, or read about her here.]  You’ll hear echoes of Jesus.  Sister Norma is not new to working among immigrants and their families—she’s been doing it for over 30 years.  She was one of the first people allowed entrance into US detention centers for children—created by the Obama Administration, by the way, which deported more undocumented immigrants quietly but aggressively. Sister Norma responds to a complicated situation with the love of Christ:  she helps those in front of her who need help—while, at the same time—working with, respecting, and praying for border guards, police, and political officials.  She faces each challenge and setback with a power deeper than herself, because it’s the power of Christ’s love within us.  We just have to allow Christ love to flow, to move, to touch, to heal, and to extend kindness and mercy.

Who knows what will move us out of ourselves, beyond the need to self-justify, to be noticed, or to find a loophole that lets us appear moral without ever sacrificing.  But whatever it is, I pray we might be open to it.  May God move us out of ourselves—whether it be through our own sense of need, our sickness, failure or challenge, or perhaps simply by hearing familiar words in a new light—may God move us out of ourselves and into the lives of others.

 

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Bearing Burdens

Taking up our crossA sermon for July 7, 2019 (The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost). The scriptures are Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-8, Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you walked by the church on July 4, you might have noticed that things were pretty quiet.  I was travelling back and lots of our regular folks were out of town, and so we decided not to have our usual Morning Prayer. The offices were closed and the garden gates were not opened.  All of that is fairly ordinary for a holiday.

And yet, if you look at The Book of Common Prayer, which is the foundation for much of our common life as Episcopalians, you’ll notice that the Prayer Book imagines us being in church on July 4.  The Prayer Book views Independence Day as a feast day and gives us appointed scriptures, a Collect of the Day, and imagines us all singing a hymn or two—all of us coming together in the freedom to worship and praise our God.

On this 7th of July, it’s still good to be in church—to give thanks for religious freedom, to work on behalf of religious freedom for others, and to think about what it means for us to be God’s people in this place.

The scriptures for today help us do this and help us remember especially what it is to practice “independence” in a Christian context.  They can help us remember that while it is “Independence” day—(celebrating independence from a colonial power)—it is not Individualist Day.  It is not Isolationist Day.  It’s a day for refreshing our understanding of the common good and of the “united” states.  The Declaration of Independence, after all, reminds us that “We the people” have come together for a “more perfect Union”… for the Common defense… and for the General welfare….Our founding documents stress that we are in this together.

The first reading today from Isaiah can at first seem to be an intimate one, but it’s more public than it might first seem.  The image here of God comforting a child is really more of God like a mother who comforts not just one child, but a whole family of children.

“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you,” God says.  The “you” is collective, it is communal.  The other side of God’s “you” is a “we,” and the “we” was the nation of Israel who struggled like children for forty years before they were made into a nation.  Isaiah’s words come as a blessing– a blessing on Israel’s effort to be one family.  Isaiah assures the people of Israel that God sees their desire to be one people and God honors that dream and holds it close, like snuggling with a beloved child.

The Psalm sings of a faith in God who has already brought us a long way and a God who “holds our souls in life, and will not allow our feet to slip.”  But God keeps us from slipping not by extending a holy and ghostly hand out of heaven to steady us and prop us up.  Instead, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ shows us that God works by becoming human.  God keeps us “in life” and prevents “our feet from slipping” by giving us one another to hold on to.

Paul puts it clearly in his Letter to the Galatians: “Bear one another’s burdens.”  “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  Paul says to help each other out not because it’s a practical way to get more done (which it is.)  Not because it will make the other person feel better (which it will).  And not even because it makes you feel better (which I guarantee, it does).

Instead, Paul connects our “bearing one another’s burdens” to Christ.  It’s as though Paul is saying, “humanitarian reasons are all fine and good,” but if I say I love Jesus Christ, then it’s a part of that love, a natural extension and expression of that love, for me to begin moving out of myself and toward another person.  That’s the way Christ’s love grows—for me and for the other person. It’s in the helping, the sharing, the praying for and with, the serving, the feeding, and the lending.  And it’s also in the reception of help—the borrowing, the asking, and the allowing.

Paul uses a phrase that is often plucked out of context and misused.  “All must carry their own loads,” he says.  But notice that this in the context of Christian community, of family, and of network.  Each must do something to help with the load because we’re all in this together. Each is connected to the other.  Just like in a family, the youngest and the eldest probably do not carry what would be understood as a “full load.”  But the young add their energy and brightness and reason to go forward.  The old offer their reflection, their wisdom, their prayers, and their love for going forward.  Paul understands our living out the love of Christ has no room for the family that would work itself to death to obtain and produce and hoard, yet all the while, looking at their next door neighbor with disdain and judgment:  “All those lazy so-in-so’s… they really should get to work.”  Instead, Paul commends a picture of community than shows us people helping one another to carry their load, to share their burdens.

The Gospel of Luke is written from the perspective of encouraging us to share the common life in Christ.  Among the four Gospels, Luke is often symbolized by the ox.  Some suggest the ox is used to represent Luke because it is a beast of burden. An ox may seem slow and plodding to some, but especially in other cultures, the ox is king of the animals—it carries loads, it moves things, it is strong and persistent, it allows for things to grow and develop.

Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs, and he sends us out in a similar way.  Sometimes we might be called upon to be the strong one: to be silent like an ox and ease the weight of the other.  But there are also those times when we might be out of energy or resources and we need another or others to help with the burdens I’m trying to navigate.

The Christian tradition gives us a variety of ways of sharing our burdens with others.

We can ask others to pray for us—like on Sundays or through the week.

We can also share burdens in practical, tangible ways—by showing our prayer in a note, or a well-placed word.  Money might be a good way to ease another’s burden.  And how many of us have had burdens lifted if not disappear altogether when another brought us food or treated us to a meal.  And the meal of meals, the Holy Eucharist is a ritual sharing of Christ’s body with each other, to sustain, to nurture, to build up.

We share one another’s burdens by volunteering with Trinity Cares, or Health Advocates for Older Adults, or the Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center.  There are all kinds of ways we can experience the strength in community that bearing one another’s burdens can be.

If we can grow in our ability to be like the children of the God of Isaiah who comforts us like a mother, if we can bear one another’s burdens like Paul says, and if we can team up with others so as to draw on their strength and share our own, we’ll grow in our ability to help others live into a Common Good.

In 1630, as people crossed the ocean to come to this country, John Winthrop, governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, preached a sermon to that early group of Puritans looking for a place to worship and live in freedom. Well into his famous sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” he says,

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of [the Prophet] Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God . . . We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

John Winthrop had a great vision in 1630.  May the Holy Spirit renew a vision for our time that includes, “delighting in each other; making others’ conditions our own; rejoicing together, mourning together, laboring and suffering together, … so that we, too, might “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.”

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

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With faces set towards Jerusalem

Pride2017A sermon for June 30, 2019 (The Third Sunday after Pentecost). The scripture readings are 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1,13-25, Luke 9:51-62

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our Gospel today begins with a great phrase:  “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  Of course, Luke partly means that Jesus was determined to get to the physical city of Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover and for whatever God had in mind for him, which was only unfolding minute by minute.  But Jerusalem has always been more than a physical city—then, just as now.  Jerusalem (for Jews, Christians, and Muslims) is fought and fussed over because it represents the New Jerusalem, the place where God is “all in all.”  It’s that Heavenly City to which all faithful people should aim their lives, their intentions, and their actions—larger, holier, more amazing than any earthly city could ever offer.

And so, when Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem,” a lot is being said.  It means there’s no time for looking back.  It means there’s no time for resting on relative gains along the way.  It means that nothing is going to stop him. And it’s exactly this direction, this intention, this energy of Christ that points forward and will not be stopped.

When Jesus and his disciples visit a village of Samaritans, the Samaritans are unimpressed.  They’ve got their own traditional beliefs and they can’t be bothered by Jesus.  The disciples are confused by this, and can’t quite figure out how to respond.  In their confusion, they get angry and so they want to show those Samaritans just who they are dealing with.  They suggest to Jesus that they bring down the wrath of God. James and John ask, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

I relate to James and John.  When I read the news, when I notice the bullies and “bad guys” of our world, I am rarely filled with Christian thoughts.  I’m with James and John, “Lord, can’t you call down fire from heaven on them– our enemies, our opponents, the liars and bullies, and especially on the so-called religious who twist your words into words of hatred and violence?”  But Jesus looks at me with the forgiving, understand love of his eyes and says no. No time for that.  Move forward.  There’s a lot to be done.  We’re going to Jerusalem and there’s no time to look back.  There’s no time to settle old scores.  There’s no time for vengeance or gloating.

I heard a talk by the speaker and writer Byron Katie, this week and she made a comment that has stayed with me.  She pointed out that if someone slaps me in the face, I can anticipate it (with fear) and I can remember it long after (with anger, resentment, plotting, hatred), but the slap itself lasts maybe a second.  What I feel and think and believe about that slap is all in ME.

This is the way of Jesus.  So what, if that particular bunch of Samaritans doesn’t get him—ok, move on.  Don’t let them slow you down.  Jesus moves us an inch or two closer into the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, and there’s just no room for extra baggage like grudges or resentments.

In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul pushes this point further.  [Now if you’re hung up on the warnings about sins of the flesh and such that Paul mentions, I encourage you to notice which words stand out for you.  Notice that Paul gives other words equal weight in terms of their challenge to us: quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, idolatry, strife, anger….]  Freedom is not to be confused with license… the freedom to prosper is not a freedom to be greedy, and a freedom to love is not the same thing as casual sex. ]  If victory, justice, and fairness bring some privileges, he argues, they also bring opportunities that should be carefully navigated.

For freedom Christ has set us free…. Don’t use freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become servants (slaves, even) to one another…. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”  And so, live by the Spirit, whose gifts are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:1, 13-25, passim)

Jesus shows us how to live in that kind of freedom.  As the Gospel from Luke describes it, Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem and the trouble with the Samaritans is only the beginning.  The joy and love of Christ is infectious, so as people hear him and meet him, they want more, and they want to follow, but some want to follow on their own terms, or to follow at some future day, just not today.

One volunteers, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.”  But Jesus warns him, “It’s not going to be easy.  It’s not a life of palaces and fine dining.  It will be more often a way of homelessness and heartbreak.”

Jesus invites another to follow, and the man seems willing but offers what sounds like a reasonable excuse for delay.  “First, let me go and bury my father.”  Here, Jesus sounds heartless as he says, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”  But Jesus is calling that man to move forward.

During Jesus’s life, there was a strong sense that the end of the world was upon them in some way.  This is a part of the urgency to Jesus’s preaching and living and the moving toward Jerusalem.

But, as the disciples and the early Church began to understand later, even when the end of the world is delayed, the urgency still stands because God’s kingdom is already breaking in on us—on those who will be a part of it.  That’s what Jesus is trying to convey—don’t miss the kingdom for the checklist you’re trying to complete.  Don’t wait until you’ve got this done or that done, or you’ve gotten beyond this hurdle or that one—the kingdom of God calls us to move forward, toward Jerusalem—the place and way of justice, peace, mercy, forgiveness, and love—the place where we do our best to live out those values Paul just talked about in Galatians.

Finally, a third person wants to follow Jesus but first needs to go home to say goodbye.  Again, Jesus sounds harsh, saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.  This is not to say we ignore history or ignore the past.  [Our first lesson shows us that there are times when we put the movement forward on “pause” to take care of business, but then we move into where God is calling us.]  But we don’t let it hold us captive, either.  Some of us grew up with racial stereotypes.  We are slow to move out of prejudice with regard to color, or class, or size, or age.  We may have a long way to go before we arrive at the Jerusalem of God’s dream, but with faith, we make our way forward, one day at a time.

The month of June has become a special time in which Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer people march, and speak, and love with pride.  While amazing advances have been made, too many people are still left out, and so there’s work to do.  We’re called to follow Christ forward—in body, mind, and soul.  Follow Christ forward, resisting the prejudice of the past, the misplaced shame of the past, perhaps the misunderstanding or rejection of ourselves or others in the past.  Follow Christ forward, and once there has been forgiveness, embrace the full calling of Jesus Christ and don’t look back.

This week, there was some very good news from England.  The Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, currently serving as chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons in Parliament, will be consecrated Bishop of Dover. Mother Rose will be the first black female bishop in the Church of England, and combines theological insight with prophetic urgency in a way that will be a breath of fresh air for the church. Thanks be to God for her election.

If you asked Mother Rose if she ever wanted to be a chaplain to the Queen, or a chaplain to Parliament, or (God help her) a bishop—she would have laughed out loud.  She has just been trying to be faithful.  Not everyone applauds.  In the Brexit climate of the UK, someone recently shouted at her on the street, “Go back to Africa.”  But she’s moving towards Jerusalem.

In our own country, parts of the Trump movement are clear backlash.  Gone are the days when race and gender automatically assured one of power and privilege, though in many circles they still carry their weight.  But we should not be slowed down by this.  As the Apostle Paul says, notice the fruit of the Spirit.  Where people are red in the face with anger, consumed by fear, and desperate for a made-up version of history— that’s not God’s movement forward.  Where people are finding themselves changed and changing, increasingly open to the strange and the stranger, and following Christ into an uncertain but faithful future—with our faces set to go to Jerusalem.

The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote,

Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge. (“Omega Point”)

Whether we feel Christ’s hand pushing us slightly from the back, or gently leading us from in front, may the Spirit give us what we need to follow in faith.

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

 

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Broken in order to be Healed

Feeding the hungryA sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 23, 2019.  The scriptures from the Book of Common Prayer Proper “For the Holy Eucharist” are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 34, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 16-17, and John 6:47-58. 

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today is a special day in the church that encourages us to think about Holy Communion.  Whether we call it the Eucharist (from the Greek word for Thanksgiving), the Mass, Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Last Supper—the Church invites us to think about our own experience of the Body and Blood of Christ.  What does it mean that he offers himself to us? What does it means that we take Christ into ourselves and become his Body and Blood in the world?

Today, in some places, churches make outdoor processions with the Blessed Sacrament.  They do so as a reminder that Holy Communion is not intended to be a rare, holy, obscure practice for the holiest of holy people.  It’s for the world—broken, fallen, dirty, and distracted.

When I think about how far the Church has sometimes gotten AWAY from the original, simple message that Christ offers himself to us so that we can be his body in the world, I recall a musical piece that expresses this idea was great beauty and eloquence.

For the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, Leonard Bernstein wrote a work simply entitled, Mass. It was, and continues to be, a musical extravaganza, a mixture of styles and languages, of color and sound and movement… and it follows the form of the Latin Mass. There’s a Kyrie, an “Our Father,” a “Gloria,” and on it goes.

But there’s more, as the piece embellishes and reflects upon the liturgical prayer that has come to surround our meal of bread and wine, this sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Bernstein’s Mass begins in simplicity, with a young man in jeans and a guitar, a young man with a calling to be a priest. He sings God a simple song.  But as the musical Mass progresses, the young man progresses. He becomes a priest. Gloria tibi is sung as though it were in a confirmation class. There are other songs of doubt, of thanks, of almost-blasphemy, and of poignant longing for love, for truth, for God.

Like many other musical settings of the Mass, the Bernstein piece begins to reach a crescendo and climax at the Sanctus. Bernstein pulls out all the stops. The music is louder and more complicated. The choirs are chanting and singing. And the priest character invokes the Hebrew of Isaiah, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,”, sanctus, “holy.” But in the complexity of the music, we begin to notice that the life of the priest has also become much more complicated. No longer a simple song by a man in jeans with a guitar, but one of dignified and learned prayer–an almost bishop-like prelate, surrounded and smothered by stuff. The music builds, the tension builds, the wine is consecrated, and then—something breaks.

The chalice breaks and smashes to the floor. The music breaks. The character seems suddenly broken, his faith shattered just as surely as the glass. “Things get broken,” the song sings. People get broken. And there, well into Bernstein’s Mass, a musical theatre piece for soloists, choir, boy’s choir, dancers, banner-bearers, and stagehands, it all comes down to something broken. Someone broken.

But not just the priest-character. Not just the theatre-goer who (whether a person of faith or not) somehow relates to the crushing force of the drama, but rather, we are pointed toward the One in whose name this drama is reenacted, the one who “took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”

It is only after the character in Bernstein’s Mass is able to feel broken, that he begins to understand the power of the Eucharist. He learns a great key to the sacrament, namely, that when we are at our most broken—whether we feel broken physically through sickness, disease or fatigue; or we are broken mentally by stress, worry or overwork; or possibly broken spiritually, through doubt and distance and dark nights of the soul— we can turn to the Eucharist.

We can turn to Christ’s Body and Blood, the very things left when Christ is broken. They are seeds of salvation, food and drink that are a foretaste of the fullness we will one day receive from God. Ignatius of Antioch referred to this as the “medicine of immortality.” It is the “medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying …[so] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”

When we are famished, perhaps overfed on the things of the world but still going hungry spiritually, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” When we most thirst for God, Jesus says, “You who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise you up at the last day.” And even when we don’t know what we need, when prayer is working, when the church seems not to notice, and it feels like there’s no one we can count as a friend, Jesus says, “Come. Eat, this is my body which is given for you. Drink this, all of you, for this is my Blood of the New Covenant shed for you.”

In Bernstein’s Mass, after being honest with the broken pieces of faith around him, after identifying with the brokenness of Christ, the main character begins to be healed. He comes to himself, and turns again to God.

Oh, I suddenly feel ev’ry step I’ve ever taken,
And my legs are lead.
And I suddenly see ev’ry hand I’ve ever shaken,
And my arms are dead.
I feel ev’ry psalm that I’ve ever sung
Turn to wormwood, wormwood on my tongue.
And I wonder,
Oh, I wonder,
Was I ever really young?
It’s odd how all my body trembles,
Like all this mass
Of glass on the floor.
How fine it would be to rest my head,
And lay me down,
Down in the wine,
Which never was really red…
…But sort of…
…brown…
And let not… another word…
Be spoken…
Oh…
How easily things get broken.  “Things get broken” from Mass

Beauty returns. Simplicity returns, and he begins to hear again the Simple Song that began the whole drama, “Sing God a simple song, praise him, praise, lauda, laude.”

God doesn’t ask that we understand the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. God only asks that we receive what he would give us, and the Holy Spirit does the rest.

Let us bring our broken lives before God. Let us share one bread and drink one cup, and be healed. The medicine of immortality is ours. Let us be renewed through Communion to be Christ’s Body and Blood in the world.

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

 

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The Holy Trinity: God over, beside, and within us

Trinity Shield Choir A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019.  The scriptures are Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, and John 16:12-15.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The scriptures for today also provide images that suggest some of the ways this happens.

In Proverbs we meet a character hinted at last week on the Day of Pentecost. Wisdom is personified as a woman who goes through the city, who journeys throughout the earth, looking for anyone who will hear. And we learn Wisdom is not just a holy woman, but Wisdom is very closely related to God—before the creation itself, she already was. She was God’s “daily delight.” One version describes her as the architect by God’s side, playing happily in the presence of God.

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we’re reminded that God has given us the Holy Spirit as a kind of second wind, a wind to lift us up when we’re down, to urge us forward when we’ve stumbled, and a wind to invigorate our faith whenever it’s grown tired or confused.

Jesus promises that the Spirit will continue to guide us even after Jesus has left this world. Jesus says that what is of God, is also of Jesus, and what is of Jesus, is also of the Spirit. The three are one and God’s intention is that we be absorbed into the life of God, the life of God in the Trinity.

One theologian (George Handry) has put it this way: in Christ we have God with us. In the Spirit we God in us. But while we have both of these, we also and always have God over us.

God the parent is over us, Mother, Father, the author of all life, the one who holds us, cares for us and sets out the plan in which we find our way.

God the Son, Jesus, is God with us, walking before us and beside us as an elder brother, a friend, a companion, a shepherd, a guide, and a support.

God the Spirit is God in us, giving us strength, probing our conscience, showing us where the world most needs God, which is to say, where the world most needs us to show God and be the love of God.

But even all of that can seem abstract.

Frederick Buechner is a writer, preacher, and theologian who wrote a little book some years ago he calls as a “theological ABC.” In it he picks a number of words often used in church, and then he gives them a definition that is usually part poetry/part practicality. In his explanation of the Trinity, he suggests that really, the “doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is only one God.”

“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.

This idea of God being one and three at the same time can be confusing, unless, Buechner suggests, we look in the mirror.

We look in the mirror and there is You. But there is a part of you, as aspect of you, a hidden you that you either choose to reveal or not to reveal. There is this interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to. This is a little like God the Father.

When we look in the mirror we see ourselves, but we see several selves, if we look. There that part that can be revealed or not revealed, but there is also the very visible face. To some extent it is our face that even reflects the inner life. If we’re upset, it usually shows on our face. If we’re rested or at peace, it shows. If we’re in love or wanting to show love, it is sometimes transparent. This is a little like God the Son. The face of God, showing a little of what God is like, but not absolutely every aspect.

Finally, we look in the mirror, we see our complicated selves and we notice that with who we are, there is a kind of invisible power we have that allows us to communicate our interior life to others. But this invisible power allows us to share our interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are. You know what this is like, when you meet someone or you’re with someone and you realize that you’re changed because of that person. The person has somehow communicated a part of his or her very self which has not become a part of your very self. Buechner suggests that this is like the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit communicated the face and reality of God in such a way that we know God, we receive God, and we even begin to become a little (usually only a very little, in this life) like God.

And there we have it: as clear, or as distorted as looking into a mirror. I look into the mirror and there are three of me, and yet, what I’m looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only me. [From Buechner, Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC,” p. 93. Republished as Wishing Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.]

May God the Holy Trinity bless us this day and forever; and may God help us to recognize the divine in one another and in ourselves.

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

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