Washed into Holiness

Jesus BaptismA sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 20, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21,  Romans 8:22-27Psalm 104:25-35, 37, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Listen to the sermon HERE

Some years ago I was at a Quiet Day (a mini-retreat) with a small group of people.  It was in late Lent, and Bishop Allen Shin (then, a priest and simply “Father Allen Shin,” or “Allen”) was leading the retreat. Near the end of the day, we were brought together and seated at a big table, like we were going to share a big meal—except there was no food.  Instead, there was just a clear, glass pitcher of water and a small bowl of salt.

Father Shin explained that during the day we had shared various stories.  We had been reminded of the stories Jesus told.  And in our meditations and prayers during the day, we had been guided by those stories and the ways they resonated in our lives.

Now, he explained, each of us would be invited to pass around the pitcher and the bowl of salt.  Each was to take a pinch of the salt, add it to the pitcher of water, and first, to share a “sad story.”  In other words, we were invited to share a story that had made us sad, or scared us, or hurt us.

We went around the room and did just that.  One person spoke of loss through death.  Another talked about her business going bankrupt.

Once we had gone around with a sad story, the Father Shin then asked us to go around again.  This time, we were to take a pinch of salt, toss it into the water, and tell a joyful story—a story that made us happy, or filled us with hope, or showed us a quick insight into the love of God.  Those stories flowed more freely and before long the room was filled with a different mood. There was laughter.  There were a few tears again, and there was gladness. When the bowl of salt and the pitcher of water came back to the priest, he very quietly stood up.  He placed a stole around his neck and invited us to stand and to pray.  He led us in old and ancient words:

O God, … who rulest the raging of the fierce enemy; who dost mightily fight against the wickedness of thy foes; … we beseech thee graciously to behold this creature of salt and water, mercifully shine upon it, hallow it with the dew of thy lovingkindness: that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of thy holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; far thence let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast; and wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be vouchsafed to all of us who shall ask for thy mercy.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

At the conclusion of the prayer the Father Shin looked at us and said, “Your stories—your stories of sadness and of joy, your tears and your laughter, have all been used by the Holy Spirit to make this water holy.  This water will be used at our next baptism.  It will be used to splash people with as a reminder of their baptism.  And some of it will go in the small trough at the entrance of the church, where it will be used quietly by those who dip their finger in and make the sign of the cross with it.  Remember that the Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”

The Holy Spirit uses US to make water and the world holy.”
The salt is made holy.  The water is made holy.  We are made holy.

Since its discovery in primeval times, salt has been used for its curative and preventive qualities.  Just as it keeps away bad things from invading food, so salt was early on thought to help in warding off bad spirits.  The Early Church used salt when a candidate began the catechumenate, the process toward baptism.  In some places it is still used around baptism and is known by the wonderful word, “exsufflation,” which included blowing the catechumen’s face, as well as putting salt on the tongue.

As salt is put on the tongue, the priest says, “Satisfy him or her with the Bread of Heaven that he or she may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service.”  Salt on the tongue symbolizes the prayer of the church that the faith that is infused at Baptism will be kept strong, distinct, and keep its edge, mindful of Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt. 5:13).

The theological word for God making us holy is a word we don’t hear much: sanctification.  But it’s a word that is still promised and made complete in God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is like a woodworker who slowly, lovingly, carefully sands the edges off a rough piece of wood, eventually revealing the wood’s truest beauty and purpose.  Sanctification is like a cook who adds a little of this, has a taste; adds a little of that; has a taste; and on and on, until the food is just right.  Sanctification is like the slow, patient work of water that carves its way through rock over years, over decades, over centuries.

Sanctification happens as our stories—the sad, the happy, the embarrassing, the horrible, the sentimental, the mundane—our individual and unique stories are brought into the story of God’s saving grace for the world.  The story of God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus, of his dying and rising again, of his living out what love can look like—this becomes mixed up with our story, so that as we grow towards God, it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.

On the Day of Pentecost, the predominant image of the Holy Spirit’s blast into the world is through fire and flame, as we hear in the Acts of the Apostles.  But also, we remember how at Jesus’s Baptism, the Holy Spirit was present.  At our Baptism, the Holy Spirit made her grand entrance into our lives, and so the bursts of flame or the rekindling of the flame within us are refreshers and jump starts to faithful living.

In just a few minutes, Skylar is going to be baptized.  Even though she’s only turning one year old today, she will soon have stories that she will bring to the baptismal font with her.  For now, her mother carries those stories, as well as her godparents and family. And in reaffirming our Baptismal Vows, we recall our stories and offer them for cleansing and sanctification.  One day, Skylar will add her own stories: both the sad ones and the happy ones.

With the Holy Spirit and with the story that is, and is to be Skylar, holiness will begin weaving her tale—extending the action, thickening the plot, adding characters, and developing new themes of love and faithfulness.

We and Skylar return to the baptismal font.  We can return every time we walk in a church, but we can return in our prayers, as well, to claim again and again “I am baptized.  I belong to God and God is making me holy.”

May God continue to draw us into the story of salvation, so that we may never forget that the Holy Spirit uses us to make the water (and the world) holy.

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

 

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Jesus Prays

christ-in-gethsemane-pA sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 1:15-17, 21-26Psalm 11 John 5:9-13, and John 17:6-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

For many of us today, our hearts are heavy, but our hearts are full.  Our beloved parishioner Jackie Albert had a stroke on Wednesday, and so we are sad. And yet, especially in the last few of her 95 years, she has insisted that nature be allowed to take its course and–should her health fail–she should be allowed to die peacefully and without a lot of drama. As we await her death to this physical world, we are sad and our hearts are heavy.  But we also have very full hearts—much fuller hearts for having known and loved Jackie than we might have had otherwise. We give great thanks for her spirit, her feistiness, all the children and families she touched in her years of teaching, her love for her church and all those who went in or out of this place, and for all she has meant to so many.

Today can also be a complicated day as the card shops, florists, and restaurants remind us that it is Mother’s Day.  Many rejoice and treasure this day, and that is good.  But for others, the day brings sadness as distance is felt more strongly, grief more intense, and some notice the disconnect between an idealized relationship and the ones we sometimes struggle with, this side of heaven.

Wherever you may be this morning, our scriptures have something to say.  The scriptures acknowledge the world as it is today, but also remind us of what we already have that will lead us into tomorrow.

In the reading from Acts, the disciples are just beginning to re-organize themselves after the betrayal of Jesus by one of their own—Judas—and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  In that Jesus appeared among them for some time after the resurrection, and then seemed to ascend to the Father, the disciples have somehow themselves been brought to new life and are ready to move out in God’s will. They choose Matthias and they move out in faith.

The disciples can go forward—just like we can move forward through any difficulty, any fear, any grief, any pain—because they remember the words of Jesus.  They remember Jesus’s words, they repeat them, and through prayer and worship and celebrating the Sacred Meal, they feel Christ’s presence among them.

The Gospel for today comes from a portion of John’s Gospel in which Jesus is trying to prepare his friends for the life ahead, for life without him. Jesus knows that their faith will be tested. It will be hard to keep faith in his teachings when he is gone.

Bishop N.T. Wright, (Retired Bishop of Durham, England) suggests a contemporary way of reimagining Jesus’s words.  Imagine a young mother, he says, who is about to leave her children in the care of her parents, the grandparents of the child.  The mother makes a careful list, reminding the grandparents of the children’s favorite food, their sleeping habits, their play schedule, and all the other things that go into caring for the children.
One can imagine a mother in that situation giving detailed instructions as to how each child should be looked after, not because she didn’t trust her parents to look after them but because she did.” (John for Everyone, p. 94)

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

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

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

Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves.

In the 80’s and 90’s studies were done on prayer. Often these were done where a person was not told they were being prayed for, or the person praying might have no relationship with the person being prayed for. Sometimes such prayer experiments were done using things other than people. The results, as you might expect, were inconclusive, at best. But some are doing newer studies, not so much trying to prove causation, but exploring the possibilities of prayer, of there being some connection between two people, and whether that connection can affect a person or both people, for good.

If we are like the disciples in the Book of Acts, standing and gazing into heaven, looking for Christ, we’ll probably be looking a long time. But if we look inward through prayer, if we seek to meet him prayerfully in the Sacraments, and if we prayerfully look in one another for the risen Christ, then the clouds may come and go, the devil may act as deliveryman for all sorts of things, God is God, and God’s “the steadfast love endures for ever.”

When Jesus spoke the words in today’s Gospel, I think his heart was probably heavy, as he anticipated leaving the people he loved.  But his heart was also full, as he gave thanks for his time among his friends and family.  The humanity of Jesus shows us how we can be most loving.  But the divinity of Jesus reminds us that God comes into us to make us holy—not only so that we might more completely recognize God, but also that we might gradually become more like God.

Thanks be to God that Christ prays for us and prays within us.

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

 

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The Cross that Conveys Christ’s Love

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2018. The scripture readings are Acts 10:44-48Psalm 981 John 5:1-6, and John 15:9-17.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Listen to the entire service (1hr, 20min) HERE

I heard a story a few years ago about a man who was traveling on business in a part of Asia where there were not very many Christians.  In a major city, he began to look for a gift for his wife, and passing by a jewelry story, he saw several crosses. He thought what an interesting thing it might be for his wife to have a cross from a place in which crosses were rare.  And so, the man went into the shop and asked the salesman if he might see one of the crosses.  The salesman looked at him with a blank look and answered, “Certainly, Sir.  What kind are you interested in: a plain one or one with the little man on it?”

“A plain one or one with a little man on it” could sum up a whole perspective of opinion—not only about art history, but also about theology.  In the Eastern Church during the 8th and 9th centuries, Christians argued over whether it was appropriate to picture Jesus on the cross, fearing the sin of idolatry. Again during the 16th century, Protestant mobs often replaced crucifixes (the cross with the man on it: Jesus) with a plain cross, believing that the so-called “plain” cross was more appropriate.

Martin Luther, credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation, never forbade images.  In fact, in the City Church of Wittenburg, where Luther often preached, one of the altarpieces shows Luther preaching and pointing to a crucifix.  Luther’s own words make his acceptance clear, but also help us, I think.  Luther said, “God desires to have his works heard and read, especially the passion of our Lord. But it is impossible for me to hear and bear it in mind without forming mental images of it in my heart.  For whether I will or not, when I hear of Christ, an image of a man hanging upon a cross takes form in my heart … If it is not a sin, but good to have the image of Christ in my heart, why should it be a sin to have it in my eyes?” (“Against the Heavenly Prophets,” trans. Bernhard Erling in Luther’s Works, Vol 40, 98-99.)

Our own church has a mixture of images. The cross on the main altar is a plain cross, with a ring around it, what is often called a “Celtic cross.”  It became popular in Ireland and Britain in the early middle ages and it reminds us, as Anglicans, of our church’s roots in that part of the world.  But in the stained glass window over the organ, the Crucifixion is obvious and the body of Jesus on the cross is unmistakable.  We also have the crucifix up high over the pulpit and we now have a new image of a cross with Jesus on it, with the new icon in the chapel. I don’t know about you, but I think I need all the various crosses I can get to remind me of Jesus and as I swerve and sway in following him, the cross marks the way for my return to balance and faithfulness.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  We could pause there and think about exactly what that means.  To love as Jesus loved is to speak to the stranger and welcome the outcast.  It’s to notice the ignored and to stand up for what’s right.  To love like Jesus is to offer healing, to reserve judgment, and to show mercy—always and everywhere to show mercy.  And in case we’re still not sure exactly what all of this means, Jesus continues: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Sometimes we might need an empty cross.  Spare and strong, the empty cross reminds us of the victory of Christ on the cross.  He is not there because he has arisen.  I have a friend who used to always see himself as the victim in just about every possible situation.  Finally a wise friend of his said, “You know, you have a lot more say in things than you are admitting.  Why don’t you get off the cross—we need the wood.” The Christian hope involves an empty cross because through it God has worked a wonder, opening the way to eternal life for all.

But other times, many of us need a cross with Jesus on it, reminding us of the cost of his way of love.  The new crucifix in our chapel is “Franciscan” not only because it shows St. Francis of Assisi at the bottom, venerating Jesus. But it is also Franciscan in tone because Christ is alive on the cross, strong and alert, with purpose and intention, and even there, teaching us, loving us, and imploring us to love more.  The result is the same: resurrection and ascension into the fullness of God’s presence, but the cross with the body of Jesus on it reminds us of embodied faith.

We can sometimes live in in our heads.  We can pray in our heads and follow Jesus in our heads.  But reflecting on the Body of Christ in a crucifix can work like a mirror to remind us that we, too, have bodies, and our bodies are capable of prayer, action, service, and love.

This is what the writer of First John is point to when he says in today’s Epistle that Christ “is the one who came by water and blood,… not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” Water might represent our baptism that refreshing and cleanses and renews and enlivens.  But that’s not all of Jesus.  He also comes giving and serving and sacrificing, eventually even offering his body and blood in the mystery of crucifixion. He shows us the way—a way of water and blood.

On the cross, Jesus says to the onlookers, “Love one another.”  To his mother Mary and his friend John, he says, “Love one another.” To us, whether we are far away or very close, he says, “Love one another.”

Trying to love one another, aiming to love another, praying to love one another, we can pray with Francis, “Both here and in your church throughout the whole world, we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

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The Way of Christ

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A brief sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter offered at the Community Eucharist at The Church of the Holy Trinity on April 29, 2018.

The key scripture the sermon reflects upon is  Acts 8:26-40.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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The Good Shepherd

Watanabe-Good-ShepherdA sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 22, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:5-12Psalm 231 John 3:16-24, and John 10:11-18

Listen to the Gospel &  sermon HERE

There’s an old preacher’s story about a priest who was traveling with members of his parish in the Holy Land. Like some priests (certainly none around here), this priest loved to talk. While going through Israel, this priest like to tell his parish about what they had seen, what they were seeing and about what they were about to see.

The priest had particular information about sheep and shepherds. He told the people on the tour bus to be on the lookout for sheep and shepherds. “Notice how the shepherd always leads the sheep,” he said. “The shepherd knows the way and the sheep follow.”

But as the tour bus rounded a curve, there just beside the road was a flock of sheep and a man who was walking behind them. He looked determined and seemed almost to be driving the sheep. The priest was outraged. Here he had been carefully explaining to his people what they should see, and here was something that just didn’t fit. He asked the bus driver to stop the bus, they all got out and he ran up to the man and said to him, “Sir, I’ve just been telling my friends here that the shepherd always leads the sheep, and then we look out and we see you walking behind them. What’s going on?” The man looked at the priest and said, “No, you’re absolutely right. The shepherd does always walk in front and leads the sheep. I’m not the shepherd. I’m the butcher.”

One moral of the story is to “Be careful who you follow.”

There’s a lot of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible. Sometimes it might not exactly resonate with us, most of us being urban people.  After all, when is the last time you identified with a sheep? (I don’t mean, “when have you identified as a black sheep”—that’s something else.)

As odd as the image of people as sheep might be for us, it would have been a familiar image for many of the people Jesus taught and talked with.  People who heard the prophets, and especially those who listened to Jesus preach all through Galilee knew that sheep tended to move along sometimes following a shepherd, but other times finding themselves having wandered off entirely. Sometimes the sheep would wander into danger and by the time they realized they were in danger, it was almost too late.

Jesus was not the only charismatic teacher and healer who could be followed. Biblical and historical scholars tell us that during the time of Jesus, there were many who claimed to be messiahs, who claimed to prophesy the future, who claimed to be magical, and even a few who claimed to heal. Who, then should we follow?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us of one way that we can always tell. He says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I lay down my life for them and I give them eternal life. They shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus is saying that if we stay close to him—through prayer and silence, through involvement at some level with other people of faith, by making sure we spend some time occasionally getting out of ourselves and helping others—we will recognize the voice of Jesus, we will feel the presence of the one who never forgets our name.

There are so many who would have us follow them—whether it’s a political leader, a boss, a colleague, or a neighbor. It might be advertiser, sports figures, or the leading voices in academics or the arts— there are many, many possibilities asking us to follow. But as Christians, we recall that we are named at baptism, and God whispers that name again and again, inviting us closer, inviting us to a life of love.

Today’s epistle connects words with action as the writer of 1 John reminds us,

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us– and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

As we continue to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and look for evidence of resurrection in our lives, may we indeed “hear his voice, know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”

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Saved by Food

holy-trinity-icon-smA sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 15, 2018. The scriptures are Acts 3:12-19Psalm 41 John 3:1-7, and Luke 24:36b-48

Listen to the sermon HERE

How many times has food saved the day?

You’re at a business meeting or an interview and the tension in the air is so thick that it’s like a fog.  But then the food comes, and one of the dishes reminds someone of a restaurant she visited. It’s in your hometown and you’ve been there, and so you begin to talk in a new way.

Or, you’re seated at a wedding reception—you know you’ll be in your assigned seat for at least four hours—and you’ve just happened to have been placed between two people whose politics and religion could not be more different, and yet they’ve decided that this is the perfect time for one to convert the other—with you in-between.  But then a dish comes and reminds one person of the way his grandmother cooked.  And the other agrees, and the tone changes.

On a date, meeting the in-laws, settling a deal, or grieving the loss of a loved one—food often introduces some very mysterious, almost-mystical element into the mix.  Food has saved the day.  At least that day.

Food saves the day in our Gospel reading.  Sometimes we read scripture so formally that we forget the words reflect conversations and situations involving real people—people who got nervous, or got scared, or felt emboldened and confident, or felt self-conscious and unsure of themselves.  They are human.  And when Jesus is on earth, he interacts in very human ways.

Food does just that in today’s Gospel.

It is soon after the Resurrection.  The disciples are terrified at the sight of Jesus. They think they’re seeing a ghost. Jesus begins to try to reason with them, “Would a ghost have flesh and bones like I do?” But they still can’t quite take it all in. So there in the midst of the fear, the silence, the remorsefulness and regret, the weirdness and awkwardness of it all, Jesus asks for food.  They give him a piece of broiled fish and he eats it “in their presence,” right there with them, beside them, among them. With the conversation that comes around that shared fish, the disciples begin to see Jesus as their friend come back to life. They see him as the Son of God, come to share a message of love. They see him as the Messiah, who opens the way to eternal life with God. All of this—the opening of their eyes, their hearts, their minds, their future— is made possible over the sharing of a simple meal.

People are hungry. Physical hunger continues to be a reality all around the globe, and close to home, here in our city.  We do a little right here to help with that—the Saturday neighborhood supper, the Tuesday Senior Lunch, the hosting of Community Sustainable Agriculture, and other work (informal and organized) with food pantries and other programs.  Many of us do what we can to acknowledge hunger and try to do something to alleviate the problem.

But people are hungry and starving in other ways, as well.  Spiritual hunger also gnaws at people, sometimes to the extent that they settle for the spiritual equivalent of fast food— easy answers and fundamentalist thinking. The sophisticated in our culture hunger as well, but sometimes settle for a diet of cynicism, of busyness and compulsion, of reliance on other things to cover up the hunger pangs.

It would be overly simplistic for me to suggest that a simple faith in Jesus immediately fills the stomach—and simple faith in God does not necessarily fill the kind of hunger that results in despair, or violence, or suicide. But faith can feed.  Faith in the God who has raised Jesus from the dead can begin to give strength, to nourish, and to refresh. For many, such faith does feed, and it even enables us to offer the bread of heaven to others.

In today’s Gospel, the conversation around a broiled fish symbolizes the way that Jesus feeds us.

He feeds us intellectually. I know that many in this country and in Western Europe think that Christianity is anything but intellectual, but that is usually because of their own lack of knowledge about Christianity. Some of the greatest minds in history were led to ask penetrating questions and seek answers by their yearning for God. Yes, in some places, organized religion has stood in the way of this, but not everywhere, and not always. Jesus said,

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” (Matthew 22). Jesus feeds us intellectually, urging us to make connections between his teachings and our lives, between his commandments, and our own culture, between his relationships with people and the relationships we are called to make.

Jesus also feeds us socially. Through programs, through volunteer efforts, through agencies and missionaries of the church, we offer literal food to the hungry. But as those of you who volunteer with the meals through Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center or other agencies know, when you help to feed others, you also are fed. You are strengthened and nurtured. If you think of it, much of our community happens around food, whether it’s the breakfast at Midnight Express after the 8 AM service on Sundays, the coffee hour and receptions, the newcomers’ receptions, first Sunday potlucks after the 6 PM service, or casual social gatherings. We are changed a little bit over food, we’re more relaxed, we’re more ourselves. With other Christians, Christ especially appears in new ways in the breaking of bread.

And finally, we’re fed by Jesus Christ mysteriously and spiritually in the Communion of bread and wine, the sacrament of his body and blood. The Collect for the Day asks that God would open “the eyes of our faith,” and that’s what happens over time with Holy Communion. As we place ourselves before God, as we allow God to feed us with this little bit of bread and wine, our hearts grow more open to God’s presence, to God’s purpose, and to God’s love.

We have a wonderful reminder of “the eyes of our faith” being opened up through the mystery of food in the Holy Trinity icon, in our Memorial Chapel. As many of you recall, the icon refers to the appearance of three strangers who meet Abraham and Sarah in the 18thchapter of Genesis. God appears to Abraham in the form of three people—angels, they become in tradition. Abraham and Sarah entertain these angels—they make them sit down, and give them food. The three speak as one and they announce that Sarah will give birth to a child.

Our icon follows the famous one painted in the 15th century by a Russian monk named Andrei Rublev. It shows the trinity of angels at table.  The original only shows the three, as if Abraham and Sarah have stepped out to the kitchen. Our icon includes them off to the sides.  By tradition, the angels represent God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The three are in conversation, as though enjoying each other’s company, completely at rest and at home. Sometimes in these paintings and icons, there’s something else in the picture.  There’s food on the table.  Food is the centerpiece without being the center, but it calms and focuses and allows God to be present in the midst of fear, in the midst of doubt, in the midst of confusion, and in the midst of hope.

The sharing of food can bring about all kinds of changes. It can open up conversation. It can bring back memories. Food can link us with our ancestors, even as taste buds pave the way to new friendships. It can bring healing. It can bring transformation.

The Holy Eucharist is food from heaven, the Body and Blood of Christ, given for us to share and become one—one people, one body with Christ, one creation with God the Almighty.

May God continue to change us through food. May Jesus continue to feed us physically, communally, and spiritually.  And may our eyes, hearts and hands be opened, so that we might receive the good God would give us and, in turn, share what we have with a hungry world.

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

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Faithful doubt

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“The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Rembrandt, 1634.

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 4:32-35, Acts 4:32-351 John 1:1-2:2John 20:19-31.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Though the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of New York is up on 110th Street and Amsterdam, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine; I’ve met a few people who were mistaken and thought our cathedral was in midtown, diagonal to, and a couple of blocks north from St. Patrick’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral.  They mean St. Thomas Church, of course.

St. Thomas, at 53rd and Fifth, is a massive building in French High Gothic style. (If you want to go to England for a subway fare rather than a airplane fare, it’s a great place to go for Choral Evensong some afternoon.) When you go in, the first thing you see is an enormous reredos over the High Altar. It’s made up of a multitude of saints, and just over the altar is a carving of St. Thomas and Jesus, St. Thomas (as one architectural explanation puts it), “kneeling before Christ, his doubt gone.”

As beautiful as that church is, and as faithful as its many ministries are, I wonder if the building itself doesn’t in some ways apologize for St. Thomas a little too quickly? For me, anyway, the great power of St. Thomas’s witness, is that he doubts, and the story of his doubt has been handed down through the ages.

We hear about Thomas in several places in the Bible. Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really. Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, Thomas nonetheless has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. But it is a place they know. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” But Jesus affirms that by knowing him, they know his destination since as Jesus says to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas is with the disciples when they are fishing and Jesus appears to them. This occurs in chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, a part of the Gospel that many biblical scholars think was added on to the original Gospel. The chronology is confusing and it’s unclear whether fishing expedition and the Easter fish-fry happened before or after the story we have in today’s Gospel.

Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas. Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th Century. A father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, Thomas continues to inspire.

A more recent poet & priest, (Thomas Troeger) has put it this way:

 

These things did Thomas hold for real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.
His brittle certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.
May we, O God, by grace believe
And, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs—what appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. The shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus then offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination.

In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism. It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to be near us.

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Seeing Resurrection through Tears

mary-magdalene-noli-giottoA sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018.  The scripture readings are Acts 10:34-431 Corinthians 15:1-11Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, and John 20:1-18.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of my favorite people in Christian history is a fifteenth-century woman named Margery Kempe. Margery had visions of God’s love. She struggled with sin and challenge, but she kept praying. She knew her scriptures and would often preach in the streets and talk about God.  But more than anything else, Margery would cry.

She had the gift of tears, and boy, did she share her gift. She cried on her way to Rome and to Santiago de Compostela. She cried as she visited all the important religious sites of England, and she shared her tears with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of Lincoln, and the holy woman Julian of Norwich.

Margery not only cried for herself, but she also cried for others.  She cried for the sins and the pains of the world.  Margery joins those from the whole Christian Tradition whose bond with Christ is so deep, so pure, so real; that their expression of love, of penitence, of compassion… comes out not in words, but through tears.  This is called, appropriately enough, the “gift of tears.”  And what a gift!

Especially in our own day, to be able to cry in the face of pain or sin or frustration and connect that pain to the pain of God is a rare gift.  Our culture still hides pain and holds back tears. Many still lift up Jackie Kennedy’s reserved grief as a model.  We make fun of politicians who cry—remember Speaker Boehner?  When a reporter cries during an interview or a story, we question their objectivity. We tell children, and friends, and ourselves—“don’t cry,” or “there’s no need to cry.”

But tears are a part of life. They’re with us at the very beginning, and they’re often with us at the very end. Tears are in our mothers’ eyes when we’re born and tears are in the eyes of those who love us, when we die.

And this morning, we have tears in our Easter Story. They are the tears of Mary Magdalene.  And perhaps there are even a few tears of our own.

Mary comes to the tomb early on Easter morning and she finds the great stone over the entrance has been moved away. She runs and tells Simon Peter and John. They then look into the tomb and find the linen cloths, but see no body. The disciples leave the tomb and go back their homes.

But Mary stays outside the tomb, weeping. She weeps as she looks into the tomb, but it’s only by looking through her tears, that she begins to see. She sees what looks like two angels. “Why are you weeping,” they ask. She turns around and sees who she thinks is the gardener, but who turns out to be Jesus. He asks her the same question and through her tears, she recognizes him.

Tears sometimes express loss, regret, sorrow, and especially sorrow for sins.  Tears show that we’re connected, we’re aware, and we—to some extent, at least—acknowledge we are a part of things, when they go rightly, and when they go wrongly.

St. John Climacus (7th century) wrote: “God in His love for [us] gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to [us] this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . .but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”  Because we have not wept….

John calls tears a “second baptism.”  So tears can be a form of prayer.  And sometimes it’s the most appropriate form of prayer.

When there is yet another school shooting. Tears are called for.  When another young black person is shot—in the back, in his grandparent’s yard—tears are where we should start.  Where whole countries and regions spiral downward in war and hopelessness, tears are in order.  And when the majority of our own country sees a rising stock as the only measure of success—(telling the poor, refugees, immigrants, the elderly, and the sick that you’ve got to take care of yourself)– a person of Christian faith, at some point, needs to simply stop and cry.

Mary’s tears are a crucial detail, I think.  Because it is only through her tears, that Mary begins to see Jesus. Through her tears she begins to see the possibilities for new life.

The tears are necessary. They are cathartic, they are helpful. Tears testify that something powerful is happening, sometimes something beautiful, sometimes something horrible, but it is some- thing. It exists.  It has meaning and purpose.

Mary stands at the tomb weeping—for how long, we don’t know. Perhaps, like Psalm 30, her “Weeping had spent the night….” She probably knew the psalm (42) that speaks of tears being one’s only food, day and night.  She might have known Psalm 56 that affirms, “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle,” that God notices tears.

And yet, Mary’s tears move her.  They take her to a new place. Her weeping makes a way as she realizes that Jesus is alive and that he has risen.

Mary’s tears remind us that Easter is not just about lilies, and bunnies, and butterflies. Because even for what becomes the butterfly, it moves from crawling to flying, and thers’s a messy, death-like process. If you opened a cocoon, you’d find a gooey mess. The caterpillar almost has to completely decompose before it can begin to develop into a butterfly.  But new life comes.

Before a new project can be started, an old one has to die in some way. Before a new habit or discipline can begin, an old one usually has to die out. Before following a new dream, an old one has to recede. Good Friday’s FINISH makes possible a new chapter in our spiritual, or social, or emotional life, the old has to be let go.

In the Revelation to John, God promises a day when, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).

Tears can seem foolish—especially the tears of all the “fools for Christ,” like Mary Magdalene, like St. Francis, like Margery Kempe, like others…. But especially on this April Fool’s Easter, let us give thanks for the gift of tears.

Let us give thanks that Christ’s death and resurrection means for us that no matter how hard things may seem (or how blessed), how far away God (or how close), no matter how many tears—God makes a way into new life, risen with Christ.
Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

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Holy Trinity to Reopen Swimming Pool

PoolWhen St. Christopher’s House (the first building of The Church of the Holy Trinity) opened in 1897, the New York Herald described classrooms, a gymnasium, and in the basement, a “plunge bath,” that worked as “part swimming pool and part communal bath.” We are very excited to say that recent plumbing work in the mission house has uncovered the original Holy Trinity pool, and we hope to reopen the pool by summer of 2019.

The NY Aquatic Landmarks Preservation Commission is excited and has offered a grant, since the vault was done by the Guastavino family, who also created the church’s cloister ceilings.  The Anglican Swimming Society (known as A.S.S.) is thrilled. The big A.S.S. hope is that the pool might be used for diocesan baptisms and the bishop’s office is very interested. (Also, a diocesan liturgist expressed delight at reintroducing the historic bishop’s bathing suit, the lavandi raritate sectam—though an additional top piece would be added for use by female bishops.)

Most exciting is that new technology in water filtration allows us to restore the pool to its original use—both for bathing and for recreation.  Current HTNC programs will be moved to the upstairs gymnasium, but a nice bath will be possible beforehand. Health Advocates for Older Adults will lose their basement program space but will soon be able to offer water aerobics.  Floating Mahjong boards have also been ordered.

Membership to the pool will be free for pledging members of Holy Trinity and neighbors may join at the levels of Noah ($100, rainy days only), Moses ($200 for a quick getaway), Rahab ($300 for singles nights), or John the Baptist (a $500 clothing-optional level that is still under review by the Vestry).  For more information on the Holy Trinity pool, please contact the April Fool’s Office on the seventeenth floor of the mission house, just beyond the rooftop cannabis garden.

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An Unfinished Story

ResurrectionA sermon for the Easter Vigil, with the first celebration of the Resurrection. The Gospel is Mark 16:1-8.

Listen to the sermon HERE

Whenever I work on a sermon or whenever I write something, I tend to start at the end.  In other words, I usually have a point to make, an ending in mind, a destination I want to reach; and so the writing is really just filling in, along the way to the place I want to end up.  The problem with this is that I sometimes miss all the possibilities along the way.  Because I already know where I want to go, my perspective is limited, and my vision narrower.

But I don’t only do this in my writing.  Maybe some of you are like me, that often, when we see someone approaching, we already have in our mind an “ending place”—a certain assumption or expectation about how the person might sound, what they might think, where they might come from.

We can do this in other parts of our lives—where we live as though we know the ending of the story—the course of a date or interview or meeting, the result of a special occasion, the journey through an illness or another kind of challenge.   Again, like in writing, the problem with expecting or anticipating a particular ending is that we might miss other options, other possibilities, other courses or experiences.

Our Gospel tonight represents one ending of the Gospel of Mark.  You probably know that the Holy Scriptures come down to us from various sources.  There are numerous versions of most books of the Bible and scholars still try to determine which are earliest and which came later.  Sometimes versions of the same book of the Bible differ, and that’s part of what’s going on with the ending of the Gospel of Mark.  Some early sources end with what we heard tonight, at Chapter 16, verse 8.

Jesus has been crucified and his body has been buried in the tomb.  But the next day, Mary Magdalene and some of the other women take spices to anoint the body and make final preparations.  But the stone entrance to the tomb has been rolled away.  They encounter a young man (Mark doesn’t say he’s an angel) and the young man tells them “He has been raised; he is not here.”  And the young man tells the women to go and tell the other disciples this good news.

But in this ending of Mark, the women leave, terrified. And they say nothing, because they are afraid.

This is a bleak ending, a sad ending.  In some ways, it suits the rest of the Gospel of Mark, which is spare and short. There’s no mention of John or Mary being right there at the cross, and we’re told that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women are looking on, but from a distance.

But other early versions of the Gospel of Mark add a longer ending, which is printed in most Bibles.  This longer ending does not leave the women paralyzed by fear.  Instead, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, then to two other disciples, and finally to all eleven disciples. Mark’s longer version ends Jesus commissioning the disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  And finally, Jesus is taken from them, ascending to God.

Scholars and theologians wonder about these different endings and what Mark might have meant, what early Christian communities might have meant, and certainly, what God might be meaning by giving us these scriptures to wrestle with. At Holy Trinity, we’ve explored these questions this Lent, as we’ve studied a book on the Gospel of Mark by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Williams suggests that the Gospel of Mark leaves off the way it does because it’s FOR US to finish the story.  The ending has not been written, because we are a part of it.  As Williams writes

What Jesus did and does has no end, and certainly not in the pages of a book, because the work he does he is doing in every new reader, and there will always be new readers….[I]t’s for us to decide whether we become part of the that process of spreading the word of the resurrection that the women at first are too frightened to. The work of Jesus in the reader the “end” of the Gospel.  (Meeting God in Mark: Reflections for the Season of Lent, p. 72)

And that only ends, when we see God face to face and hear how God REALLY wants to end the story.

We might feel like we’re living in stories that have already been written, that have particular endings, and are restricted to specific characters and plot lines—but one aspect of the Good News of Easter is that the story isn’t finished. “The Greatest Story Ever Told” is a misnomer, because with faith—with you and me—who knows? Maybe the story is just getting to the good part!

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

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