Sabbatical 2022: Camino Steps – II

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Sabbatical 2022: Camino Steps – I

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Sabbatical 2022: First Steps

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Drawn out of ourselves


More about El Greco’s Pentecost can be seen HERE.

A brief sermon for the Day of Pentecost.

The scriptures are

Most of you know that today is my last Sunday with you until August. I’ll be going on a two-month sabbatical. While I’ve talked and written about hoping to do a lot of walking during the next few months, while I’m in Spain, I plan to do a lot of LOOKING. Looking at the places where various saints have prayed. Looking at churches. And especially looking at art. 

One of the paintings I hope to see up close is El Greco’s vision of Pentecost. Though I like most of El Greco’s work, when I was taking a class a while back, it was his Pentecost painting that overwhelmed me. I did a report on it for the class, but it’s still inside me. I’m not finished with it yet. Or, perhaps I should say, El Greco’s Pentecost is not finished with me yet. 

The painting portrays the story we celebrate today when the Holy Spirit appeared over the disciples and other followers in flames of fire. El Greco brings Chapter 1 of Acts into Chapter 2, as he places Mary, the mother of Jesus in the center of the painting. She’s there, along with all the disciples, along with others, and as El Greco does in other work, all the figures are elongated, but here, it’s as though the power of the Holy Spirit is drawing them up and out of themselves– to be more alive in the world, to be more faithful, to be more loving, to be more available. 

The Holy Spirit does many things, as we see in today’s Gospel. The Spirit advocates (that is, gives us a kind of second wind when we most need it.). The Holy Spirit blows into our lives with truth and empowers us to tell the truth, even when it’s hard or makes people uneasy. The Holy Spirit teaches, calms, and brings peace. The Holy Spirit answers and abides and leads us into love. 

But especially today, as we do our best to emerge from the pandemic, as we celebrate the baptisms of Wesley and Bennett, and as we pray for one another as we begin this summer season; I’m drawn again to that way in which El Greco shows the Spirit drawing us all out of ourselves. 

On the Day of Pentecost, we heard how the Spirit of God helped people of wildly different backgrounds and cultures, of different languages and tongues suddenly understand each other.  From our standpoint, looking at the differences in our culture, it might seem like understanding others’ languages is the easy part. How does a person advocating gun control understand a member of the NRA?  How does a Pro-choice person have a conversation with a person advocating stricter laws? How does a single person relate to a person who is all about their children? How does a young person just starting out on their own begin to relate to an older person who is nearing the end of life?  This is where we rely on the power of God. This is where we look and listen for the Holy Spirit. This is where we pray, like the early Church, “Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten. Anoint. Cheer. Teach. Enable. Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with your love.”

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

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Peaceful but not passive

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the difference between peace and passivity. In many situations, I go to the words of the Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th-century Russian saint, who said, “The one who is at peace will save a thousand souls.” I believe that idea, that a person who is at peace (with themselves, with their God, with their experiences– both the good and the bad, at peace with their friends and their enemies) will have a rippling effect of peace on all those they encounter.

But at the same time, as we try to get our heads and hearts around the massacre of children in a school room in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the racially motivated shootings in Buffalo, the week before, and all the various horrific and soul-shaking events of our day– I also think this is no time to be passive. It’s no time to check out, even as I might pay less attention to the ongoing replays on the news.

I want to find peace, and be a person of peace.
But I don’t want any part of being passive.

And so, I continue to follow the Prince of Peace, Jesus, who (remember?) was put to death because his message of love and active peace was too much for the violent forces of his day. God overcame that violence and every violence with the Resurrection, but it is Resurrection power that engages us, that fills us with purpose and direction, that enables us to continue forward with love that refuses to give up.

In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see this spirit of Christ’s active and confronting peace working in the life of Paul. The Spirit of Christ’s acts within Paul even though Paul seems to be acting primarily out of annoyance.

Paul and Silas and some others were in Philippi, Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they meet a slave-girl who is telling fortunes and making good money for the people who own her.  All of a sudden, she starts following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them.  Paul gets so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he is exasperated.  He is “made miserable” by her) and so he snaps.  But rather than yell at her, rather than hurt her in some way, Paul prays over her.  And then things go from bad to worse.  The girl loses her soothsaying powers and her handlers, her traffickers, really lose their means of exploiting the young women.

These men get the crowd on their side–never difficult to do, by the way. And they all suggest that Paul and his men have broken the peace. Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten up, and thrown into jail.

God disrupts the peace again, in answer to their prayers, and responds with  an earthquake that shakes the jail.  The doors are opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family are converted to God.  

Notice that the prayer of Paul begins with a prayer of annoyance (do something about her, God!), then moves to a prayer of emergency (save us), and finally a prayer that ends with rejoicing, rejoicing among strangers-turned-into friends. 

Is Paul a man of peace? According to God’s perspective, yes, but according to the slave traders and the locals who were more interested in supporting the status quo, Paul is a problem.  The people of Philippi say, “These men are disturbing our city,” and want them gone. But when we find ourselves in places of passivity (where there’s an illusion of peace, but it’s really just a corrupt, lazy, or frozen system) we’re called to move with the disruptive peace and love of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out this kind of strong peace, disruptive peace.

In 1956, the University of Alabama was told by the court that it could no longer discriminate, and it admitted Autherine Lucy. But when Autherine showed up, she was met by violence and protests. The university trustees caved to the mob and asked Autherine to leave.  The newspaper headline that came out afterwards reported that things were quiet in Tuscaloosa, that there were “a few days of peace.” 

In a sermon a few days later, Martin Luther King talked about this “so called” peace.  “It was peace that had been purchased at the price of the capitulating to the forces of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the almighty God.”

In the highpoint of his sermon he spells it all out in words that St. Paul would surely have “amened.”  King said,

If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

Finally, never forget that there is an The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.

“When peace becomes obnoxious,” preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, March 18, 1956?

The Hymnwriter Brian Wren develops this idea of Martin Luther King, and bases a hymn on Micah 4:3.  Wren includes a few lines about what peace is NOT, and then he imagines the kind of peace of Christ:

Tell them that peace is
the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free
the thunder of dancing feet,
and a [parent’s] voice singing

Tell them that peace is
the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into plows,
the giving of fields to the landless,
and hunger a fading dream.

Peace . . . is a song
playing to the pipes of freedom,
swinging to the sound of love.

(Brian Wren, “Say no to peace,” Words © 1986 Hope Publishing Company)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for us, in an intimate expression of his love for each one of us, and for all of humanity. We are his sisters and brothers, we are his family, his beloved.  And yet, he knows the world, well, and admits to his Father, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 26).

A pandemic, a struggling economy, no clear leadership in any sector of our society– it’s a lot.  But we have each other. We have wise ones, like those celebrating major birthdays in our community. We have young ones, like those who are giving their time and faith to our community. And we even have the very young, as we look forward to two baptisms next Sunday.

We have each other, we have the Church that spreads throughout the world, and we have Christ who prays for us, and within us, and promises never to leave us comfortless, but to fill us with his spirit.

May the powerful, disruptive, new life of Christ’s peace be ours. Amen.

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With the Current of God’s Healing

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

On Friday, I was walking in Central Park, and made a stop at one of my favorite spots.  I’ve talked about it before, but it continues to feel like a kind of centerpiece to the park, for me. Bethesda Fountain.

At about 72nd Street, in the middle to the park, at the edge of the Lake, it’s the focal point of Bethesda Terrace. It was designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, and it depicts today’s story of the healing fountain in Jerusalem. Bethzatha or Bethesda, was thought to get its healing properties because angels would dip down and stir the waters up.  

I love that Bethesda Fountain (like our own church) is one of those secret winks of the Holy Spirit in New York City. It’s right there in plain sight, but if you pause and reflect, there are much deeper spiritual meanings. Just as Bethesda Fountain celebrated the wonders of the Croton Reservoir, which brought healing waters to the people of NYC in common everyday ways, so often, healing is right in our midst, if we open ourselves to it.

Today’s Gospel suggests a number of points about healing, about our role in healing, and even the place of faith in healing. It says something to those who are waiting for healing. It speaks to those who long for healing but can’t see a way forward. And it speaks to those of us who perhaps are the picture of health and might think a sermon on healing might only be for the sick.

First, the word to those who wait. The scriptures are filled with stories of Jesus healing, and even of the other disciples offering healing. Prophets sometimes heal, and one woman is healed simply by touching Jesus. If we’re not careful, it can seem like healing from God is instantaneous, like the faith healers we might read about or see on television or in movies. Notice that the man in today’s story had been ill for thirty-eight years. In another Gospel (Mark’s) a woman is healed who has been sick for twelve years. These stories remind us that healing doesn’t always come quickly. Healing doesn’t come with the right prayer, the right amount of faith, the right religious experience. Healing comes in time.

The story of the man at the pool of Bethesda speaks of one who persists, who continues, to carries on—each day, each year, waiting for healing. But this particular story also suggests that the route to healing (for this man) has perhaps been right there all along.

Secondly, there are those who look for healing, but overlook what is right in front of them. I’m reminded of the Old Testament story of Naaman, the military commander who had leprosy. He heard that the prophet Elisha was a man of wisdom and healing, so he went to see him. Elisha told Naaman to do something very simple and Naaman laughed at him. Naaman felt different from others, special from others, unique in his own illness. But Elisha knew what would bring healing and told him, but Naaman balked at first. It seemed too easy, too simple, too obvious. It’s not the calm waters that offer healing, after all, but the ones stirred up with holy healing.

The person Jesus meets at the Pool of Bethzatha is right there by the water, but he has all sorts of reasons for not stepping in: “others get in before me,” “there’s no one to help me in,” or who knows what other reason he might give.

This is like the person who limps in pain but whose doctor assures them that if they simply had a knee replacement, the pain would go away. It’s like the person who squints and misreads, when properly made glasses would solve the problem. It’s like the person who wrestles with an addiction and convinces herself or himself that their situation is unique, when there are twelve step groups that offer healing and new life. Sometimes healing is at hand, but we find reasons to delay or not ask for help, or remain just beyond arm’s reach.

And finally, there are those who wish for healing, but don’t know where to start. They need a little help reaching the source of healing. But in both cases, it might not be an angel from heaven who stoops to stir the waters, but it might be me or you. It might be another person—whether healthy and strong, or perhaps someone undergoing their own pathway into healing.

I’ve mentioned before how in the Hebrew scriptures, there’s often some ambiguity around the root word that is used both for “angel” and “messenger.” But I think that’s also a theological mystery—sometimes angels are ordinary people, coming at the right time, offering just the right word, offering a helping hand, or perhaps just being present, in silence.

As majestic and beautiful as the angel is on Bethesda Fountain, it might be that you or I are called to be the angel who prepares the waters for healing, who helps connect one with that water, or who helps to carry a person closer to the source of healing.

Often, when a person needs healing, the professional pastoral care giver (the priest) is not the most helpful person. If one is undergoing chemotherapy, often the most helpful person is another person who has gone through similar treatment. A person who faces having a heart procedure will often be helped by talking with someone who has already had a similar procedure. And certainly, the twelve-step recovery movement shows the wisdom and effectiveness of recovering people helping others to recover. And often the most healing person is someone to walk along side, not offering advice, not even talking so much. The great priest and writer Henri Nouwen describes this sort of person as a “wounded healer.” He writes,

To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds…. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.” The Wounded Healer, 1979

Who knows when, where, or in what we might be called upon to be an angel of healing, an agent of God’s healing; but I pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to stir the holy water and to show us how to help stir up the spirit of healing and health.

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

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The Wideness of God’s Mercy

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I disappointed a lady sitting in the garden this week. When she saw me, she called me over. “Father, can I ask you something?” I said, “sure,” and introduced myself. She explained that she was Roman Catholic and was curious about our church. Wasn’t I glad that the Supreme Court seems to be moving against Roe vs. Wade? Didn’t I agree that this would be so much more in keeping with God’s plan?

I took a deep breath and began to try to explain that the Episcopal Church affirms the sanctity of all life, and, at the same time, affirms the importance of a woman’s faith-informed decision over her own body.  I pointed out that our church differs from hers also in our belief that education around contraception and human sexuality is a priority and an enormous part of the conversation. I explained that I could refer her to carefully researched and written reports of the Episcopal Church General Conventions that give voice to the nuances and complexities of the issue, but she said, that for her, it was all very simple. I explained that I needed to go, but I couldn’t resist saying to her that I really find very little about following Jesus “simple.”

There is a temptation to make religion “simple,” to draw lines and make lists. It keeps some people in and others out.  At its mildest form, it makes us self-righteous and pulls us away from others.  At its extreme, it becomes the kind of racism and hatred that motivates killers like yesterday in Buffalo and like too many places around the world and in our country.

But to create that kind of religion is to pick and choose one’s scriptures, to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, and to ignore the way in which scripture reveals Jesus Christ.

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter runs into this kind of thinking when he returns from missionary activity and goes back to Jerusalem. The faithful there criticize Peter because they’ve heard that he’s taking the message about Jesus beyond Judaism and reaching out to Gentiles—which is to say, everyone else. The uncircumcised. The uneducated. Those people of other heritage, or mixed blood, of all kinds of unspeakable practices.

But Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals– four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them.” But this was like serving steak to a vegetarian—even more so, perhaps, because there were traditions and customs and years of observing these dietary laws as a good and faithful Jew.

There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good.

It turns out that this dream prepares Peter for what comes next. He meets Cornelius. Cornelius is not only a Gentile, a non-Jew. But Cornelius was also a soldier, an agent of the Roman state, one who might follow orders to burn and sack a Jewish village whenever it was the whim of the emperor. But God had been working on Cornelius just like God worked on Peter through the vision.

Peter and Cornelius talk. Cornelius is converted. And then, Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

The vision of Peter invites us to think about our own perspective. Who is included in God’s love? God’s mercy? God’s forgiveness?

Those of other faiths or denominations with Christianity?
The uneducated. Those who live outside urban centers. 
Those who speak different languages.
Those who have different sexual or expressions.
Those who get married and have children, those who choose not to, etc, etc., the list goes on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” points to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.

We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up chairs and a bowls, and we washed feet. At Holy Trinity, we try to do what Jesus talks about in scripture. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. Another washes that person’s feet. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet. The harder part is allowing another to serve me, to wash my feet. But that completes the circle of love Jesus is pointing to.

This “new commandment” is not a commandment like a law, a law we must do, or there will be a penalty. It’s more like a rule that, practiced over time, shows its worth. The commandment to love through service is like a “best practice,” something that brings success emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

God surprised Peter and those early followers of Jesus by showing just how wide God’s love is. Jesus surprised his friends and disciples by showing just how radical God’s love is.

May the Spirit enable us to be part of the Jesus movement of witness to love and service, love that takes us into eternal life.

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

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Help in Following God’s Way

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

It works out nicely that on this Sunday, observed as Mother’s Day by many, the scriptures give us a picture of someone who seems to have been a wonderful mother of faith. We don’t know if she had children of her own, but she certainly had spiritual daughters, sons, and an enormous family to follow.  The reading from Acts talks about Tabitha, whose Greek name was Dorcas.  The Acts of the Apostles gives us a picture of how the early church was growing, with energy and faith in the resurrection, with Mary and the other disciples spreading the word, and with local, everyday people putting their faith in Jesus and changing the world right where they lived.

Dorcas seems to have been such a woman. She was “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” but news reaches Peter that Dorcas has died.  When he reaches her village, he meets all the women around her, weeping, sharing memories, mourning, and, as scripture says, “showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  Peter heals Dorcas and she is raised up, presumably, to live an even longer life of good works, acts of charity, and making clothing for those who need it.

The name of Dorcas continues in the Christian Church, with Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian ministries named after her.  Especially in the 1800s, the Dorcas Society begun in England established various chapters in the United States.  An especially strong one was the African Dorcas Association, founded in 1828 in New York.  Women would meet at Margaret Francis’s house in Tribeca or in the Free School on Mulberry St.  Members of the society pooled their resources and made clothes for poor children to be able to attend school, especially those attended the African Free School.

The Biblical Dorcas continues to inspire as someone who did what today’s Collect of the Day suggests:  that we hear the voice of Christ, that we hear in it our own name, and that we have the faith and strength to follow where he leads.

Whether we actually hear something we think may be the voice of Christ, or simply choose to listen for that voice—the voice of God’s love towards us, the music of God’s peace, the sound of the Spirit’s strengthening—faith involves our trying hear and developing our ability to tune out all the noise and static, so that we can really listen.  Some may hear it clearly. Others may hear it only partially, or trust that others hear it.  But our being here, in this place, is an act of our obedience to God, recalling that the word “obedience” comes from the Latin, ob-audire… to listen, to hear.

But do we also listen for our own name in the sound of God? The second part of today’s prayer invites us to “hear our own name,” meaning, to discern our own path for being faithful.  Sometimes we can do that alone. We sense God’s invitation to use a part of ourselves, to develop a talent, and to share it with others.  But often, we’re slow to hear God alone, and we need other people. That’s where the whole community of faith comes in, as we help one another discern God’s gifts.  It happens when someone says to you, “I notice you’re good with kids. Would you consider helping teach Sunday school or volunteer for a special children’s event?”  Or, “I notice you have ideas about the church, may I nominate you to stand for vestry or serve in some other capacity?”  On and on, goes the encouragement, the listening, and the discernment.

The third part of our Collect of the Day involves following where Christ leads.  The Good Shepherd and lamb imagery breaks down when we think about this third part.  God has given us a great deal more freedom and willpower than a lamb has.  We can choose to follow the way of God in Christ, as we hear it ourselves, and as it’s amplified in Christian community, or we can choose to go some other way. Often, we can choose an in-between.  We sense where God wants us to go, but we don’t feel strong enough, faithful enough, or ready enough.  Maybe we stop still, in fear.  Or maybe we veer off to the right or left.

We do something like what we think God is calling us to do, but with less heart, with less faith; we do something more within our own capabilities, with less spiritual challenge, or something we don’t have to necessarily fall into the arms of God for.

The somewhat scary word, “vocation” can sometimes be used in a kind of all or nothing way.  But I think a person can have several vocations, if one is open to God’s Spirit.  Frederick Buechner has defined vocation famously as “the work God calls you to do.”  He explains,

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  (Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95).


When I think of an openness to God’s calling and vocation, I think of my college friend, who I’ll call Lisa.  Lisa majored in business and did well, graduated, and quickly began working for a large bank.  She did well and was fairly happy, though worked long hours.  When she met her husband, who also worked in banking, she began to be open to a change. She prayed a lot about this, asked people at church, and continued to listen for God’s prompting. Lisa became pregnant, which filled her mind/body/spirit with new life.  But through her pregnancy, an idea began to grow.  Once her son was born, the idea seemed to be encouraged from every direction.  Lisa wanted to be a nurse or a midwife, somehow to assist other women in bringing children into the world.  She went back to college to take a few science classes, enrolled in nurses training, and after a few years, began working in a hospital on the newborn wing.  Her early vocation was as a banker. Her midlife vocation is as a nurse.  Who knows what her later life’s vocation might be?

The Church itself is sometimes understood as Mother Church—because it gives birth to faith, to new vocations, and to new life.

On this and every day, may God “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.”

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Our God of Second Chances

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

 

When someone tells you a “fish tale,” it usually means they’re telling you a story that either didn’t happen, or a story that they have embellished or stretched.  But today’s Gospel is a “fish tale,” of sorts.  But it’s a “fish tale” not because it’s untrue, but because it’s almost too good to be true.  In this fish tale, St. Peter gets a second chance.  And this means that we, too, are given second, third, fourth, and infinitesimal chances in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus appears in the work of the disciples:  he appears first as a wise fisherman with advice for where to put the net in, and second he appears almost as a “short order Savior,” Jesus at the Galilee grill, cooking a meal for his friends and in so doing, shares with them the fullness of God’s bounty.

But God provides much more than breakfast.  God gives more than the stuff of just another good fish-tale for the disciples to hand on to the church.  Especially if we look at Simon Peter, we see the extravagance of God’s provision. God provides—again, and again, and again.

Remember Simon Peter on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?    Remember that the disciples were gathered in the upper room for the Passover meal.  Just before the meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet.  It was Simon Peter who said to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  And Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Peter begins to catch on, so says excitedly, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Later that night, after Jesus is arrested from the Garden of Gethsemane, Simon Peter is by the fire, getting warm.  Someone asks, “Aren’t you one of them?  Aren’t you one of the followers of Jesus?” And Peter shakes his head.  Again, and another time, Peter denies, rejects, disowns, plays it safe to cover himself, and to pretend there never was this claim of Jesus on his heart.

In the resurrection account the women go to the tomb and see that Jesus is no longer there and they tell Peter.  It seems then, for a second, Peter believes.  (And yet, some biblical scholars suggest that this mention of Simon is misplaced and that today’s reading shows the first appearance of Jesus to Simon Peter.)

In any case, immediately after his denial of Jesus, we don’t really know what Simon Peter did.  We don’t know where he went, who he was with.  Did he go into town, find a pub, settle in and try to forget it all?  Did he ask questions of his friends and try to piece things together?  Did he pray?

We don’t know, but what we see from the scriptures is that before long, Peter simply went fishing.

The St. Peter who is full of faith, carved in marble, and in important places all over Rome and elsewhere is a St. Peter to whom I have a hard time relating.  But the Peter in the scriptures—this Simon Peter, who’s faith one minute allows him to walk on water to meet Jesus, but the next minute makes him fall in-this Peter, I can relate to.

In the Gospel, I imagine that Peter has had a long week.  There’s a lot on his mind, and so he just needs to get away, to run away.  Fishing provides a way and provides the additional cover of appearing like going back to work.  Getting back to normal.  Let God sort out the things of God, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Except that the fish aren’t biting.  It’s as though creation itself refuses to cooperate with Peter’s will.  Creation—the water, the fish, the wind—are saying, “No, Peter, you need to sort some things out first.”

A new day begins to break, the sun is just about to come up and the disciples make out a form standing on the beach.  “Throw the net in on the other side,” the person says, but speaks with a kind of knowing authority that commands attention.  The disciples throw the net in, and suddenly they feel the weight of so many fish they can barely haul in the catch.  John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.”  And when Simon Peter hears this, he gets himself together, jumps into the water, and swims to the shore to see for himself what seems too good to be true, too fantastic, too forgiving, too much of God’s grace.  And yet, there is Jesus.

It’s like a second baptism for Peter.  The old is washed away.  The new is come.  Buried with Christ in his death, Peter is lifted up to share in the resurrection of Christ.  Peter becomes like a little child again, with a light heart, and a ready faith.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.  And the disciples hear echoes of “take, eat, this is my body.”  The meal is shared, new life is shared, tasted and savored.  The meal provides for the kind of intimacy and honesty in which Jesus can pull Simon Peter aside.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says.  Then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,”  Peter says.  And then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this time, Peter is sad because Jesus keeps asking and seems to doubt and seems to know how shaky and unreliable Peter’s heart really is, so he says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.  And follow me.”

Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  This fixes, it un-does, and it recapitulates the three denials of Peter.  The Church enacts this doing and un-doing of three-ness during Holy Week as on Good Friday, in some places, the Holy Cross is brought into the church from the back and the cross is presented at three places with the words, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”  Three times the cross is show and the proclamation made.  And then at the Easter Vigil, the cross is replaced with the Paschal Candle, and again in those same three places new life is proclaimed, “The light of Christ, thanks be to God.”

Whether in patterns of three, or four, or a hundred, or once—God provides occasions in our lives, like he did with Simon Peter, so that we might have a second chance.   I once saw a sign in a chaplain’s office that said, “O God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am…. again.”

And here we are…. again.  Tom Long, an old preaching professor of mine, likes to say that faith is not so much an experience or a feeling or an emotion.  It’s not simply some kind of vague awareness of something greater than ourselves. Rather, faith is a skill.  It’s a skill to be taught and developed and practiced.  Faith is something to be done in the world.  And the world awaits our doing.

Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”  In other words, “care for one another, show love to one another, especially the stranger and the misfit, search out for the lonely and forgotten, the poor and the sick, and follow me.”

Like Peter, God gives us second chances.  For the one who has become so engrossed in work as to forget the gifts of family, God provides a second chance.  For the one who walks by the person in need, God provides a second chance.  For the one who has to have the final word, never buckling under to another, God provides a second chance.  To the ones whose relationship is more mundane than magic, God provides.  For the one who is angry, or disappointed, or who is stuck in shame, who’s obsessed with regret, the one who has lost faith in a world of abuse, violence, bombs and bloodshed…. God provides a second chance… and a third… and fourth….and more than we can count.

Whether this is the second chance or the two-thousandth chance, accept the grace that God would grant, receive the forgiveness, embrace the welcome, and throw your life into the life of Christ again.

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

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The Faith (and Doubt) of Thomas

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:


A few weeks ago, on April 3, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Troeger died after a several-year diagnosis of cancer.  Near the end of his life, he told the current dean of Yale Divinity School, “I am dying, but my soul is dancing.”  Professor Troeger began ministry as a Presbyterian Minister, and later was ordained in the Episcopal Church (you can see one reason why I liked him). He taught with a friend of mine for some years, but what I most admired about Tom Troeger was that even though he wrote academic books, and articles, and preached, and taught– he also wrote hymns. More than fifty of his poems and hymns have been published, and he sometimes said that he felt his real theology could be found in those songs.

And so, on this St. Thomas Sunday, I feel like it’s appropriate to quote from another Saint-in-the-making Thomas.  His hymn, so appropriate for today, sings

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.

(Thomas Troeger, 1984, Psalter/Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church)

We hear about Thomas in several places in the Bible.

Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really (Tauma in Aramaic). 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, there’s no doubt to Thomas as he 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. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” Jesus affirms they really DO know– that by knowing him, they know his destination, as Jesus explains 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. And 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.

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. They 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 come to us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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