God of the Second Wind

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 28, 2023. The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21. Psalm 104:25-35, 37, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23.

At last Saturday’s Ordination and Consecration of Bishop Matt Heyd, the Holy Spirit was all over the place. There was a lot of red, like today, reminding us of the Spirit’s fire. As we heard scriptures and songs in other languages, it felt a little Pentecostal, because we understood what we needed, even when we weren’t looking at a translation. There was the singing of the ancient hymn, “Come, Holy Spirit,” just before the bishops laid hands on their new colleague, Matt. The preacher talked about “conspiring with God,” which is to listen for and let the breath of God flow through us and for us to live, and talk, and act, motivated by God’s very breath.  And then, for me, the Spirit showed up at just the right time, as we were feeling a little bit of the humidity in that giant space, packed with people, and like a miracle, some giant, unseen fan began to blow.  I was thankful for that wind, whether it was from the Spirit or a thoughtful cathedral employee. But then again, maybe that was the employee, letting God breathe through the simple act of thoughtfulness.

On this Day of Pentecost, we (again) try to open ourselves more fully to the gift of God’s Spirit, and we, like most of the Church, struggle with the images. The Spirit of God at the beginning of creation is like a wind, or like a breath. This Spirit hovers over the creation of all things. In the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, the Spirit is personified as a woman running through the streets, Lady Wisdom, seeking for any who will stop and listen to what she has to say. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire and does quick work at helping all of the disciples who have gathered—disciples from all directions and languages and cultures and backgrounds and differences—understand each other. Of all the work of God’s Spirit, helping people who are very different from one another be able to understand each other while retaining their individuality and difference—that is surely the work of God, and work we should pray for and welcome.

The Holy Spirit sometimes comes in overpowering ways, like a wind that clears away all that is old and needs to go, making way for God’s new life among us. And sometimes the Spirit is like that still, small voice heard so long ago by the Prophet Elijah, in 1 Kings 19. Elijah had run out of options. He was tired of doing all the talking, the authorities were after him, he felt alone and afraid. But when he finally slowed down, when he finally gave up, there in a cave God’s Spirit came not in the huge wind, not in the earthquake, and not even in the fire. But at that place and time, God’s Spirit came to Elijah like a whisper, like a breeze that only slightly stirs.  But it was enough for Elijah, and he got a second wind.

Of the many images for the Spirit, this idea of God’s Holy Spirit being like a “second wind” is one that resonates for me. 

A second wind is that holy help from God that comes at just the right time.
A “second wind” can come in the form of a friend, or a colleague, a stranger, or even a family member. And (of course) sometimes WE are urged by God to be the second wind for someone else. 

I remember when I was in my early teens and I used to mow the grass and take care of several yards in our neighborhood. Sometimes, because of thunderstorms or my own doing other things, the grass would get really tall and I would have just a few hours to get a whole lot of work done. On several occasions, I remember being furious with the world, mad at everybody, hating the lawnmower, and wishing I were a rich kid and could be sitting by a swimming pool somewhere. As I was struggling with tall, wet grass, my brother would show up. He would have a story or two and would talk my ear off. He might infuriate me by suggesting a quicker way to get the work done (which I would resist, but then see that it was, in fact, a better way). Eventually he would leave, but I would finish up my work really quickly. His visit gave me a second wind. Whether he was motivated by his own need to have an audience for his stories, or whether my parents suggested he stop by, or whether it was the Spirit of God—it worked like the Holy Spirit for me. 

I think this idea of a “second wind” is what Jesus gives in today’s Gospel. Earlier in chapter 14 of John, the Apostle Philip wants to see God and Jesus tries to explain to him that by being in the presence of Jesus, Philip IS seeing God. But Phillip worries about what will happen when the vision fades. What happens when it doesn’t feel like God is around? What happens with faith fails? And Jesus promises that the Advocate will come—the Holy Spirit of God advocating for us, advocating for the way of love, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will teach you, remind you, be with you. God will bring you a second wind that will bring peace. This is the Holy Second Wind of Jesus.

In what ways might you need a “second wind” in your life?  Is it in your work? Your relationships? Your own personal development in some way? Whatever it is, I invite you to make it your prayer and invite the Holy Spirit’s active presence.

However we picture or imagine the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the Spirit’s power in our lives. May we be alert to the second winds that give us strength, and may we be alert to God’s spirit when we are called to offer that support and strength for one another.  Come, Holy Spirit, renew us with your second, and third, and hundredth holy wind. Amen.

Being a Christian in a Diverse World

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 14, 2023. The scripture readings are Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, and John 14:15-21.

A priest, a rabbi, and an imam go to Israel . . . It sounds like the set-up for a joke, doesn’t it? But this Christian happed to be Pope Francis, and the rabbi and imam were friends of the Pope’s from Argentina, and they were making an historic visit to Jordan, the Palestinian territory, and Israel a few years ago. 

I was reminded of the Pope’s visit, as I’ve been reading and preparing for our Sunday morning series on Christianity in the Middle East. On Monday, May 22, (not tomorrow night, but the next week’s Monday night), we will host the Rev. Canon Faiz Basheer Jerjes, the priest from St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, Iraq, and Sinan Hanna, Chief Administrator at St. George’s.  Dinner will be at 6, and a talk and discussion will follow.

When Pope Francis made that historic visit to the Middle East, (just as he did in 2021, when he visited Iraq), the Pope made the Vatican administration nervous. Francis has a knack for complicating things, for doing things differently, for adjusting his message to the ears of his hearers, and risking whatever it takes, to share the love of Christ with others. What the Pope was doing, and often IS doing, is not so radical in that it departs from the core of our tradition. His methods are so traditional as to seem new, as he follows St. Paul, who of course, was simply following the way of Jesus.

We see this aspect of Paul in today’s Epistle.   Paul is preaching—that’s normal enough. But here, the context for Paul’s preaching is as important as the content.  He’s in Athens, Greece, at Areopagus (the hill of Ares, or for the Romans, Mars Hill). It was a great place of meeting. It was a place where the philosophers debated—the Epicureans, the Stoics, and all the other parties advocating one way of reason or truth as opposed to another.

Many different gods, many different philosophies, all came together there. But notice how Paul preaches. It’s very unlike most of his preaching elsewhere. In other places, Paul draws on the long tradition of Judaism, showing how Jesus fulfills the traditions and hopes of Judaism. But he knows this won’t play well in Greece. Here in Athens, while people might know a good bit about Judaism, it isn’t infused into their lives the way it might have been elsewhere. Here, Paul needs to speak in a way that is more familiar and accessible to his audience.

To vastly oversimplify what Paul is doing, we could say that he does at least three things: he listens, he looks, and he loves. He listens to those in front of him, he looks for connections, and he loves them as children of God.

Paul listens. He listens enough to know what people believe. He admires their religious beliefs. He notices that they had a shrine to an unknown god. And though many people feel as though Paul is making fun of them here, I wonder. I wonder if he isn’t simply engaging them and inviting them to see his point of view.

Paul looks for connections and finds them in the beliefs they can all hold in common, in their questioning, in their seeking the truth and looking for God.

Paul loves his audience. Having listened to the Athenians, and having made some connections with them, Paul moves on to be able to offer them his own understanding of the love of God. Still showing them respect, resisting the urge to belittle or discredit the beliefs they already hold, Paul uses what they believe to link them to the love of God. It’s not a mushy, personal affection that Paul feels with the individuals there. Instead, it’s a realization that each one is made in the image of God, and God loves each person as God’s very own daughter or son. And so Paul offers them the sense he has of God’s love and presence. And in the presence of God’s love, there is room to grow.

This threefold way of relating to people is something we all might try from time to time, not only with those who are different from us, but perhaps and even especially with those who are similar but with whom we have trouble communicating or relating.   

First there is the opportunity for listening. Listening means not talking, not judging, not assuming we know the mind and heart of the other, but really allowing there to be space. Had Paul approached the Athenians with his own agenda, assuming that they were hell-bound pagans who didn’t have much of a belief system at all, his audience would have sense this, and they would not have listened.

Second, there’s the chance for looking. In her book, An Altar in the Word: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor points out, “Many of the people in need of saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way they do” (p. 6). We can look for connections, for something in common. We can do this even when we are angry with another person or disagree in an almost violent way. If we’re able truly to listen, surely there is something we can find in common, something we share, something we understand in a similar way.

And finally, even when we’re sitting across from someone we genuinely may not like, or not understand; we can envision that person in the presence of God. We can ask God to love this person, even when we’re unable to.  On this Mother’s Day, I remember a senior warden in the church I served in Washington. Nancy had no children of her own, but she acted like a mother to family, neighbors, and anyone and everyone who came through the doors of that church.  When someone was especially difficult, or when some disagreeable politician or criminal was mentioned, after all the hatred and venom  was aired by other people, Nancy would take advantage of the silence, sigh, and say, “Well, someone’s their mother.”

And that said it all. Nancy was remembering and remind us that God’s love is maternal and paternal beyond all our experience and imagining, and if God can find it within his heart to love the worst and most awful, God embraces us with that same transforming and redeeming love.  

Christ promises us help. “If you love me,” he says, “you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.” Jesus knows that it’s hard work listening to others, looking for what’s in common, and really loving others as children of God, but Christ promises we’re not on our own in this. He is with us- through the power of the Holy Spirit, who encourages, strengthens, and fills us with all spiritual gifts.

Saint Paul had a dramatic setting for engaging people who were different from himself. For most of us, that setting is less dramatic though just as difficult. It involves our family, our coworkers, and our fellow parishioners. As we move toward the Feast of Pentecost in a couple of weeks, may we be open to this Spirit of Christ to help us listen, look closely, and love.

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

Christ, our Way

Jesus and the Disciples, High Altar Mosaic, Westminster Abbey

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2023. The scripture readings are Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:2-10, and John 14:1-14.

Many of us watched the Coronation of King Charles III yesterday, or perhaps have seen parts of it.  Some seemed surprised by how religious the service was. One commentator pointed out how much it felt like a wedding, while a friend of mine thought it felt like a funeral, at times.  Indeed, the joy and celebration was like a wedding. The gravitas, a bit like a funeral.

The Coronation liturgy, of course, is an accumulation of centuries of tradition.  From early times, it was important to show that the new monarch was strong, had armies and wealth and power, and even had God on his or her side. And yet, for me, anyway, some of the symbolism almost works against a living Christian faith. The show of power can undercut the reality of a simple faith that, by itself, through God, can move mountains.  Christ gives us what we need—whether the challenges come through trying to rule a nation or just going through our day.

Today’s Gospel gives a word of hope and assurance in the face of grief and uncertainty. But Jesus’ words also work for the day-to-day, the nitty-gritty, and any time and any place where trouble threatens. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” But he doesn’t just say that so that we might have a roadmap to heaven. He’s giving us a roadmap for living, a roadmap that involves a having a choice, finding a place, and never being left alone.

“Let not your hearts be troubled” can sound so pious and “stained-glass-like” that we can miss some of the nuance in its meaning. “Don’t let your heart be troubled” suggests that we have a choice in the matter, and that’s good news. We can LET our hearts be troubled, but Jesus encourages us not to. We’re not spineless victims when trouble comes. We might not have any power over the situation or the thing, but we can choose how we react. We can choose how we let it get to us. We can choose whether to let it trouble our heart or not.

In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we have the culmination of chapters 6 and 7. Stephen is chosen as the first deacon, someone to coordinate the distribution of food and care for the widows. But the religious leaders of his day don’t like the new arrangement. They feel threatened and plot to do him in. They throw together a mock trial to accuse Stephen of blasphemy. But there, even in the midst of the trial, Stephen makes a choice. He lets himself be emptied, so that the Holy Spirit has room to work. Stephen lets go of his will, his cleverness, his resourcefulness, his connections—and he let’s God take over. And there in the middle of his trial he receives a vision, a vision of heaven opening and God offering welcome and power and love. The mob can’t handle this, and Stephen is stoned to death, becoming the Church’s very first martyr. 

Most of us are unlikely to be put in Stephen’s situation, but some of the binds we find ourselves in can seem just as tight, just as hopeless. St. Stephen and countless others have CHOSEN not to let their hearts be troubled, but to believe in God, and to believe that God has a way.

Jesus talks about a place for us. And I think we respond to that so deeply because perhaps, there’s something in us that longs for another place, a better place. But that place is not just physical. It’s not geographic. It’s psychological, it’s intellectual, it’s spiritual. We long for a place where our hearts, souls, and minds are free to grow and develop as God intends, unrestricted by custom or expectation or background or any other thing.

When Jesus says, “In my father’s house there are many dwelling places,” he’s not talking public housing. He’s not talking retirement villages in some ideal state or country. He’s talking about SPACE, space that has the unique qualities both of being expansive and of being safe. Jesus goes before us to prepare a way, if we follow him, he leads us where we need to be.

When trouble comes, there’s a choice involved (as to how we respond) and there’s a promised place up ahead (where all becomes clear) but perhaps even more important; in addition to being promised a choice and a place, we also have a people.

But those early apostles were called together as a people, a family, of sorts; but more than a family.  They were given authority by the Holy Spirit. One by one, the disciples ask Jesus where he’s going, how do they get there, what do they do about this or that, and each time, Jesus answers with relationship. You have seen me and known me, you have known God the Father. Believe and we are in you. You have all you need. You have one another. Thomas asks more questions. Philip asks more questions, but later, after the crucifixion and resurrection, they begin to see what Jesus means. They have each other—they have a people—but it’s a special band of people who’ve got your back, and when they get tired, the Holy Spirit steps in. We’re covered, we’re good to go, we’re protected, strengthened, and enlivened for the mission of God in our world. 

One thing I enjoyed about watching the Coronation yesterday was knowing a little about some of the people whose lives were busy preaching all during that carefully scripted liturgy.  The Rt. Rev. Rose Hudson-Wilken, the Bishop of Dover, who was just in New York last week, presented Queen Camilla with part of her regalia, but Bishop Rose’s life is the thing that preaches: as a little girl from Jamaica, she felt called to be a priest, even though the church didn’t ordain women. Now she’s the first Black female bishop in the Church of England.  The Rt. Rev. Sarah Mulally, the Bishop of London, heard God’s call interrupt a successful nursing career, and she became a priest, and now one of the most powerful bishops in the Church.  And even the Archbishop, felt Christ’s call to choose and change, as he left a lucrative family career in the oil business in order to try to help the Spirit breathe new life into the Church.

We don’t need a mounted army, special regalia, or a gold carriage to be faithful. We are called too, and whether the path is clear or murky, easy or challenging, we have a choice, we have place, and we have a people.  W. H. Auden reminds us of the mysterious Christ who leads us forward and never leaves our side:

Auden writes,

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

“For the Time Being” (A Christmas Oratorio)

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

Holy Trinity offers Meowing Prayer Service

A special announcement for April 1

Aberdeen University Library, MS 24  f. 23v (England, c 1200)

The Anglican Tradition has given us the beautiful liturgies of Morning and Evening Prayer, which we offer weekly at Holy Trinity. However, we have come to realize that we have sometimes overlooked the needs of a special segment of our community. As the recent Diocesan DEIC (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion among All Creatures) report embarrassingly noted, our parish has been extremely welcoming of dogs, but we have not always done our best to welcome cats. To avoid any kind of pastoral catastrophe, and through a happy concatenation of events, we have decided to pounce. Very soon, we will offer Meowing Prayer, a service especially groomed for the felines among us. We don’t have to be a cathedral, but we can do more.

Our own Catechism reminds us, “Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 856).  Christopher Smart’s poem Jubilate agno, set to music in Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb (Op. 30) praises the piety of his cat, Jeoffry: 

For at the first glance
Of the glory of God in the East
He worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body
Seven times round with elegant quickness.
For he knows that God is his saviour.
For God has bless’d him
In the variety of his movements.
For there is nothing sweeter
Than his peace when at rest.
For I am possessed of a cat,
Surpassing in beauty,
From whom I take occasion
To bless Almighty God.

In other words, purring is prayer. 

Meowing Prayer will be an online service, of course, given most cats’ preference to stay home and sometimes participate by rubbing against the computer screen or gazing catatonically. Because many cats style themselves as aloof and indifferent, they are categorically predisposed to be good Episcopalians. Care will be taken to find the most resonant liturgical voices to lead Meowing Prayer, providing the faithful with a rich worshiping experience. A natural, cataphatic spirituality will inform the liturgy, making use of sound, symbol, image, and suggested textures to scrape, claw, or knead in response to God’s grace. As our Prayer Book allows us to include non-biblical Christian literature in addition to Scripture at the Daily Office (p. 142), this new service will draw liberally from T. S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a favorite in the feline community. Readings from the Showings of Julian of Norwich will also be used, since one of the earliest stained-glass windows of the fourteenth-century holy woman shows a cat living with her in her prayer room, obviously assisting her in dispensing spiritual and pastoral counseling. 

In addition to our regular offering of Meowing Prayer, we will partner with the Tomcats of Yorkville for their quarterly “Hello Kitty” socials and provide space for the Feline Film Series of Brooklyn, currently housed somewhere among the dockyards. The Park Avenue Persians, of course, continue meeting at a neighbor church, but wish to reiterate that visitors are always welcome and proof of breeding is not required.

It will surprise no one that our Director of Music, Adam Koch, has already been a catalyst for music that is liturgical rather than litter-gical. With sufficient planning and publicity, we could please any clowder with the mew-sical performance of, Duetto buffo di due gatti, known as the “Cat Duet,” based in part on Rossini’s Otello, compiled and edited by R. L. Pearsall. A lovely version can be viewed in the video below. A cat-baret or a dramatic evening might also include Ravel’s Duo miaulé from L’enfant et les sortilèges and Mozart’s Nun, liebesWeibchen, “Miau! Miau!”

We hope this news will be catnip to our community and underscore our love for all God’s creatures. Should there be any ailurophobes, those who wish to raise theological questions about Meowing Prayer, or those who simply have their whiskers in a tangle, please visit the April Fool’s Day Office on the 13th floor of the Mission House, down the hall from the rooftop cannabis garden.

Seeing in New Ways

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2023. The scripture readings are 1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, and John 9:1-41.

“Healing of the Blind Man” window over the main altar at Holy Trinity

In Mexico City, the main square in the historical district is surrounded by impressive buildings. There are museums, government buildings, and the cathedral. I first visited Mexico City in 2015, and I was awe-struck at the size of the buildings, the history, the people, the activity. I found my way to the cathedral for the early service on a Sunday morning, and even though I didn’t understand everything I heard, I loved being part of the crowd and worshipping in such an old, historic place. After the service, I left to go to a museum before catching a bus back to the town where I was studying Spanish.

A few years later, Erwin came with me to Mexico City. I showed him the Cathedral, and after we walked around a little he pointed to a building ahead a ways and said, “What’s that building?” I thought it was a museum, but as we walked into it, we realized that IT was the main cathedral. The church I had been in was simply a huge chapel of the cathedral.

It took another person to help me see what was right there in front of me.   

Today, the scriptures are about LOOKING—about how we look at things, and about how God looks at things.

The reading from 1 Samuel marks a major shift for the people of Israel. The people have wanted a king, like other nations. But the priests have reminded them again and again that power corrupts, and kings go bad. God alone is ruler and king. But the people have prevailed, God has heard their prayers, so the big shift began with Samuel anointing Saul as king. But over time, just like the prophets and priests warned, Saul went bad and as scripture says, even God was sorry. And so something new is stirring, and it will take good eyes to notice what God is doing next.

But in today’s reading, Samuel goes to the village of Jesse. The sons are paraded out one by one, the strongest, the smartest, the bravest. But we, who have inherited this great story, know that Samuel is going to ask for someone else. Someone, who is—scripture tries to paint as the obvious choice all along—good looking with beautiful eyes—but even that can’t cover up what is for everyone a strange and unpredictable choice by God.

The key to the passage and the key to the calling of David comes to Samuel from God, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

In the Gospel, we have the obvious centerpiece of the story being that of a man who is healed of his blindness. But if we listen to the whole drama, God is really inviting everyone in the story to see differently, to deepen their vision. The village (the neighbors are all confused if this is the guy who used to beg on the corner, or is it someone else?). The Pharisees (who are worried about how and when he received his sight, thus missing the miracle). The parents of the man (Who seem like they’d rather not have been pulled into all of this. ‘Ask him, he is of age,’ they say.)

When the man is brought back in front of the Pharisees, the religious authorities, he’s asked about the man who healed him, since they refer to Jesus as a sinner. The man who has been healed begins to see more than with his eyes: he sees the whole picture and is even able to be playful with the Pharisees. “Why do you ask about him? Do you want to follow him, too?” The man who has been healed has that wonderful detached perspective of understanding the whole picture, and thus, not being threatened by the Pharisees. With perspective, there is humor, and that’s how the man can respond with such calm and confidence. But the man is thrown out of the synagogue.

When the man finds Jesus, Jesus asks him somewhat cryptically, “Do you believe in the Son of Man,” using the old term for prophet, seer, man of God, and messiah. In all humility, the man asks, “After what I’ve seen, given what I’m seeing, tell me who he is and I’ll believe.”  Jesus says, “You have seen him and are seeing him.” And the man believes.

The scriptures today work together for joy as they invite us to improve our vision. We’re invited to be healed, to be cleaned, and to lean on someone else for a better view.

In church and in private we pray for healing. We know that healing doesn’t usually happen like we might see at a revival or on television or in the movies. But healing does happen. I remember a great friend of my former parish, a man who worked at the nearby florist, who had not been feeling well. He was told he had cancer, the cancer had spread to the brain, and things were not looking good. We prayed. Friends of his prayed, and friends with no faith sent their intentions of love and strength and healing and God has used all of this. With the right doctor (and a lot of prayer), the diagnosis changed, and was no longer one of cancer, but of an infection!  And the infection got better.  In that setting, healing came through the insight and vision of a particular doctor, but healing is often related to our seeing, our being awake, and noticing what God is doing in our midst.  God deepens our vision through healing.

Some of us, for better spiritual vision, simply need our eyes cleaned. Baptism does that, the lingering effects of baptism, remembered and reclaimed work for cleaning. The Letter to the Ephesians contains language many scholars believe was used in some of the earliest Christian baptismal rites: “once you were darkness; now in the Lord you are light. Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

God improves our vision by healing, by cleansing, but also by giving us others who might have better vision or see differently. In my first parish, I used to have a parishioner who loved to visit people with me and she would always insist on driving her big Buick. As we would roll down the road, she would occasionally say, “John, what does that sign say up ahead. Is that our turn?” At first I was worried to have an older woman behind the wheel who couldn’t see, but then I realized she was asking me for assurance, for confirmation. She could see the sign well enough, but wanted my insight, too. (Increasingly, when I forget to wear glasses for driving, I’m that person asking another—what does that sign say? Why do they write them smaller and smaller?)

In the spiritual life, we’re giving companions for the way, people who see over things and under things, who see around them, and even seem to see through them. To benefit from others, it only takes our acknowledging that we don’t see it all ourselves. We are sometimes blind, but with God and God’s friends, we can see more clearly.

At Holy Trinity, we’re blessed with a lot to look at in our church.  But one of the most prominent images, right over the altar, is the healing of the blind man.  I love that this image is central, reminding all who come in this place that Christianity is about our relationship with Jesus Christ.  It’s about our allowing him to touch us, to heal us, and to help us see.  That involves healing (sometimes physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual). It involves cleansing, and in involves God’s placing us in the fellowship of others who are also trying to see God and to see with God.
May God grant us vision to see his miracles within us and around us.

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

Blessed are those who mourn

A sermon preached at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, for Solemn Evensong on March 5, 2023. This is the second in a series on the Beatitudes, with the primary phrase for this evening, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Matthew 5:4. The scriptures read for Evensong were chosen from the recommended Book of Common Prayer readings for a Christian Burial, Isaiah 6:1-3, 8-11, and John 11: 21-27.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Most of us might agree that we’d like to be comforted. We want the presence of God, the love of Christ, the support of friends, family, and community. But do we really have to go through the mourning? Can’t we bypass that? Or if we must mourn, can’t we do it privately and quietly, out of the view of others? Since mourning is hard and makes others uncomfortable, isn’t it better just to power through, and go on with the business of life?

But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for THEY will be comforted.”

W. H. Auden knew how to mourn. In his poem, “Funeral Blues,” he lays it out clearly:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

W. H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”

For Auden, something has happened; something has changed. It begs to be noticed. It has to be marked and mourned. There IS no business as usual. Things will forever be different.

Most of us don’t live with Auden’s sensibility. We are busy and we are efficient. When someone dies, the practicalities are addressed, but often, any real mourning or grieving is limited. After the initial shock, and the essentials done, there’s a kind of suspension of reality, almost as though nothing has happened. Observances are planned for some time in the future—when the weather is better, between business trips, after Spring breaks, careful not to conflict with a tournament or recital, then, and only then, the departed can be remembered fondly and happily. It’s a little like they’ve gone on a cruise or maybe just vacationing in a different place this year. It’s Easter without Good Friday. 

And yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” which implies that those to be comforted are the ones who have mourned. If there is no mourning, can we expect much comfort?

I can’t help but wonder if part of our country’s problem with gun violence has to do with our tendency to go from tragedy to tragedy, with no pause, no outrage, no grief, no mourning. We lack a vocabulary for mourning and have forgotten basic practices. We see evidence of this when a famous person dies or there’s an act of terrorism, and the public reaction can sometimes far outweigh the event, because so much bottled-up grief just finally comes out sideways.   

We see mourning in this afternoon’s lesson from the Gospel of John. Chapter 11 reminds us about Jesus’s friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany. Lazarus becomes sick, dies, and by the time Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. When Jesus approaches the village, people are gathered to mourn. Martha meets him on the road and shows us what mourning can look like—full of passion, anger, insult, outrage, a refusal to accept the loss, an acknowledgement that everything has changed. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” A little later, in verse 29, her sister Mary does the same thing as she confronts Jesus with her own grief.

Expressing their anger, their grief, going through the confusion of mourning, the sisters open themselves up for what eventually can be comfort.  Jesus indicates what that comfort will look like as he refuses to answer the specific questions about Lazarus, or why now, and why him, but instead Jesus offers himself, the Resurrection and the Life—none of which Martha or Mary understand at the moment.

Jesus makes his way through the mourners, the sisters, and the community, and he approaches the tomb of his dead friend. And there, in verse 35 we hear that two-word sentence that sets the Bible apart from all other holy books and scriptures: Jesus wept.


God the Creator of heaven and earth, God the mover and maker of all, God incarnate in Jesus sheds human tears, breaks down, loses composure, risks looking weak, makes himself vulnerable, and shows us the way through mourning towards what will be the hope of comfort. 

Did the shedding of tears also release something in Christ that allowed him to raise Lazarus? Did the tears open Christ up in some new way to be able to comfort those around him? Did his holy tears somehow stir the current of God’s Trinitarian fountain fulness?

Tears get their due in the writings of the Servite Sister Joyce Rupp. Especially in her little book, Praying our Goodbyes, she reminds us of the importance of grieving and shows us how to do it creatively. She offers practical wisdom for mourning in what she calls “praying our goodbyes.” Rupp points out the many kinds of losses we experience: death, certainly; but also transitions from one place to another, ending a significant relationship, loss or change in a job, the aging of one’s body…. So many aspects of life that, that when noticed and mourned, can find new healing and comfort. She writes

When we pray a goodbye our focus is on hurt and healing. Many times, it is just a first step, or a beginning of the process of being healed . . . . It may feel like opening a window and airing a stuffy room, or like finding the key to a door that has long been closed. It may seem like finally discovering the right medication for a lengthy ailment.

Praying our Goodbyes, 60.

Sister Rupp suggests that praying a goodbye can often include four aspects:
recognition, reflection, ritualization, and reorientation.

We first recognize and name the hurt, the loss, the person or thing that is mourned.
We then reflect on what this means, how we feel, what it brings up for us. We sit with the feelings and don’t avoid them.

We use action and movement to ritualize the loss and our feelings around the loss. And finally, reorientation begins as one opens to God’s healing and God’s comfort over time, and usually in ways we never suspect or imagine.

As we move through this season of Lent, as we encounter themes of suffering in the scriptures, in the news, and in our own lives, may we be encouraged by Martha and Mary. May our tears be sanctified by the tears of Christ, and may we, too, be blessed in our mourning and know God’s comfort. Amen.

Born Again

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2023. The scripture readings are Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17.

The Stanford Center for Longevity thinks about the future. Their data suggests that in the United States, as many as half of today’s 5-year-olds can expect to live to the age of 100. And yet, the Center points out that the social institutions, norms and policies that currently exist in our country are woefully unprepared. The Stanford Center’s “New Map of Life” tries to suggest what needs to be put into place in terms of health, mobility, financial security, independence, social engagement, and other related aspects of aging.

What the center, and I think most people, have yet to really think about, is how to age spiritually. This church and most churches are filled with people who are being reinvented spiritually, but we don’t celebrate it enough. More evangelical traditions probably have a more active vocabulary for this, but today’s scriptures show us clearly that if we’re open to it, God can reinvent us spiritually over and over again.

The Reading from Genesis reminds us of the stories about Abraham and Sarah. God tells them to “get up and go.” God has a plan, and everything is going to be different. So Abram and Sarai follow God into a new land, and over and over again, their faith is put to the test.

They must have thought life would be one way, but it turns out very differently. Just when they get their head around a new challenge, there seems like an even greater challenge around the corner. This reaches a highpoint when God reveals to Abram and Sarai that in their old age, they are going to have a child. After all they’ve been through, you’d think they would be used to God’s surprises. But this one beats all. In fact, when Sarah hears that she’s going to be a mother, she laughs out loud. (Which is how they come up with the name of her son, “Isaac.” Isaac means “laughter, or she laughs.”)

We’d laugh too, if we really knew what God had in store for us when we follow in faith. We’d laugh out of disbelief, out of wonder, or out of nervousness.

In our Gospel lesson, I can almost hear Nicodemus laughing, as Jesus tells him he can be born again. Nicodemus is a Pharisee, one of the spiritual elite, a man of social standing and respect and probably known by many of the other religious leaders. He knows the scriptures. He is educated. He can carry a conversation with the most sophisticated people around and he is nobody’s fool.

And just when Nicodemus is expecting some nugget of wisdom or great advice from Jesus, he hears what sounds like nonsense; like a joke, even. Jesus tells him that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, he has to be born anew. Born of water and spirit. Born again. Born from above. Born with new belief that God loves the world so very much, that God has come into the world to save it through Jesus. God offers new life, but it sometimes brings disruption along with it.

We might like to think of the spiritual life as predictable and linear. We can be tempted to think of the Season of Lent as parallel to the season of spring, with spiritual growth just happening naturally. But the kind of spiritual rebirth experienced by Nicodemus is anything but natural. It comes out of nowhere. It doesn’t follow the normal order of things. It involves his being “born again,” or to translate the phrase differently, Nicodemus is “born from above.”

Though we hope the spiritual life can be predictable and linear—when we think about it, the spiritual life is just that—a life, and life is often filled with disruptions and surprises. A diagnosis from the doctor can change everything. A changing economy or downsizing can change everything.

A disaster can change the life we thought we were living. A death of someone we love can disorient us and seem to change everything. A virus or the threat of a virus can threaten in all kinds of ways.

At those times, we are likely to feel like we’re in a lost place, or a wilderness, unable to see or hear God’s promise yet. We’re like Nicodemus stumbling in the dark, unable to make our way just yet, not seeing that there’s any light.

In such times, words often fail. But we do have one another. When someone near us is struggling, it’s not always the most helpful thing to recommend books, or plot strategy, or offer words of encouragement- though all of these things (of course) have their place. The most powerful reminder of hope in God is to offer ourselves.

If there is some part of us that has known God’s rebirth in our lives, if there is some part of us that has felt the rekindling of God’s spirit even when we had been down… if there is some part of us that can live as a witness to God’s power of new life, of new birth, then our presence itself can be a sign of hope for the person who is lost. Abraham and Sarah became spiritual leaders because they had been through the wilderness and survived. Nicodemus became helpful to others because he had gone through his own “dark night of the soul” and had been found by Light again, so he could witness to the light.

When I think of Nicodemus, I sometimes think of a former parishioner. This was a wonderful woman who had been eased out of her job in Washington through political changes. With the loss of her job, she felt like her reputation was taken away and much of her ability to continue getting work in her specialty. She lost her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also felt like she had lost her identity, since her job was so much a part of her own self-understanding. But, as she puts it, after a while, she realized that she needed to believe in her own journey again. Though she had always thought she had life planned and plotted out, clearly, something else was going to happen. Life wasn’t over, just changed. She had lost one identity, but life was inviting her to find a new one. She had to regain belief in her own journey, that even though the pathway might be through the fog, with the help of others, and with the help of God, she would make it. Eventually, she teamed up with another woman and they opened their own firm, both, enjoying their work well into the age that many people retire.

What we can offer the person or the people who are suffering is our own strength, witness, and support. If we can convey in some way that we, ourselves have known what it is to be lost in the wilderness and then born from above, this is the hope we can share.

Just the week before last, we observed Ash Wednesday. The liturgy and prayers of that day invite us to re-locate ourselves in the drama of life, and death, and new life. We acknowledge the places that are broken and begin to clear away the wreckage. And we allow God to begin again with us. To re-frame the words of Psalm 51,

God helps us to hear of joy and gladness, that the body that was broken might rejoice. God creates a new heart, and a right spirit within us. God gives us the joy of his saving help again, and sustains us with his bountiful spirit. We are delivered from death, and given new lives for praise.

Jesus says that we can be born again. We can be born from above. This happens again and again and again. With God’s Spirit, we ARE (even now) being born from above.

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


A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2023. The scripture readings are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

The Temptation of Christ by the Devil, Spanish, (possibly 1129–34), Metropolitan Museum, Cloisters

On Thursday night, we began our Lenten online book study of Richard Rohr’s book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation.  Rohr begins the book by meditating on the icon by Andrei Rublev, which we have a copy of in our memorial chapel. It depicts the story from Genesis 18, when three strangers greet Abraham and Sarah with the news that God is about to do great things in their lives. The strangers turn out to be angels, and Christians have read into this story, a foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity.

In the Rublev icon, as in ours, the three angels surround a meal of some kind and there’s space for us at the table. Some people look at the central angel as representing Christ, and with this, they note his two downward facing fingers.

In Christian art and iconography, Jesus is often shown with his hand in the form of a blessing, or perhaps ready to anoint us, or holding two fingers. Theologians suggest that the two fingers reminds us of the two natures of Christ: one divine and one human, but through the miracle of God, both natures are full and complete. Jesus is fully human, and fully God. 

If we’re able to conceive that there may be “God,” most of us can probably understand Jesus as the way in which God reveals in our world.  But it’s harder, sometimes, for us to remember that Jesus is fully God AND fully human. 

It’s this very human Jesus who is led into the wilderness for forty days. He fasts, and because he is human as well as full of God, he gets hungry. The devil appears to him and says, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The devil has good insight: surely if Jesus is of the God who parted the seas, who made manna fall in the desert and who enabled Jesus to be born to begin with, then a little magic trick with rocks into bread should be no problem.

Next the devil takes Jesus to the highest pinnacle of the temple and taunts him with the psalm that promises the safety of angels’ wings. Again, it must have been tempting, but again, Jesus quotes scripture to the devil.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and promises him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor—but there’s one little detail: Jesus just needs to bow down and worship the devil. I can imagine the devil saying, “It’s just pro forma, really, just to fulfill the contract, a show of allegiance, a symbolic act—it doesn’t really mean anything. Don’t overthink this.” And again, for Jesus, it must have been tempting. Perhaps it even could have sounded like it might fit within God’s will. Especially with the disciples constantly suggesting to Jesus that his could be a worldly kingdom, Jesus must have wondered. But again, Jesus quotes scripture back at the devil, and the devil goes away. For now, at least.

I think Jesus must have been tempted a lot. At least, as I read the scriptures and imagine my human response to some of the situations he encountered, I certainly would have been tempted. When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law—don’t you think Jesus might have been tempted to really let them have it—to level them with an argument so astounding that it would make them cry, or simply to have the building fall on them and be done with them? When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, don’t you think Jesus, at some point, was tempted to respond with impatience or exhaustion or in some other all-too-human way?

And yet, in the face of each temptation, Jesus made a choice. And he chose for God.
Temptation is like that for us, as well—it always asks us to choose.

D.T. Niles was a twentieth century Sri Lankan theologian who suggests that temptation really comes down to our making a choice between God (with a big “G”) and every other god (with a little “g”). He writes, “The choice between God and every other god is a real choice. Both make promises, both demand loyalty. It is possible to live by both. If there were no real alternative to God, then all humanity would choose God.”

Against the devil’s temptations of the immediate, the present and readily available, Jesus remains calm and speaks out of his own faith and experience in God. Jesus knows that God will provide bread in its time. He knows that God’s promise of the angels’ care is not meant as an instant solution to a random moment of whim. And Jesus knows that God is using his abilities and talents in a way that is appropriate to God’s will.

We should not think for a minute that the devil isn’t still around today. But instead of looking for a little red guy with a tail, often we should pay attention to what appears as light—but light that misleads or distracts. A key to dealing with temptation is to remember that one of the most powerful names of the devil is Lucifer, a word that comes from the Latin for “light.” It is the great trick of the devil to play on our humanity, so that when we are most vulnerable or most afraid of the dark, light presents itself. It’s natural for us to be drawn to the light—for brightness, for the good, the happy, the comfortable, all that enriches and assures and enlivens. But look around the edges of the light. What is its source? What is its intention? There is the possibility that what first appears to be light is only a flash that will lead us into deeper darkness. Temptation presents us always and everywhere with the choice between God and gods, sometimes experienced as the choice between true light and the false light made of bright, shiny things that are really just reflections or distortions of light.

The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between light and shiny things.

Spiritual disciplines help us to do this. The church reminds us of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.)

Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

As we move through these forty days together, let Lenten disciplines inform us, shape us, clean us and put us at peace.

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

Following God’s Lead in Mission

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, observed as World Mission Sunday. The scripture readings are Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 99, 2 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9.

Villanueva, Honduras, 2005

A few years ago, I was with a mission group from my church, helping a chapel in Honduras build some new seating for their church.  One day, several of us needed to go to the hardware store. The guys from the parish went to the back to look at a drill motor and I, with my child-level Spanish, was left to ask the clerk for help with some screws.  “Por favor, necesito tornillos con una cruz en la cabeza.” To me, this seemed very clear:  I need some screws with a cross on the head, what we call Phillips head screws.

The man looked at me curiously.  I used my hands, “tornillos con una cruz in la cabeza.” But I wasn’t getting through. Finally, I found some in another part of the store and brought them over to him, and said, “Como estos pero más grande.”  Like these but larger. 

All of a sudden, the man got a big smile on his face and said, “Ah, Phillips head. Están allí.” 

In that moment and on that trip, I gained a few insights into mission.  I took my focus off looking for differences, and began to look for things we have in common.  I began to be open to learning, in a new way. I found myself in a new place of humility, and I caught God’s always-surprising sense of humor.

Today is designated by the Episcopal Church as World Mission Sunday. We’re invited to reflect on what it means to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” words we reaffirm whenever we renew our Baptismal Covenant (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305). And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own relationship with the idea of “mission.”

When you hear a phrase like World Mission, Global Mission, or Christian Mission, what comes to mind? 

Are there stories of heroic missionaries—doctors, farmers, teachers, preachers you have read about or met? Or, is there an uneasiness, as you might be aware of some of the negative ways in which imperialism, colonialism, and even fascism have warped and abused Christ’s message?

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of an Anglican council visited the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, one of 50 castles along the Western coast of Africa used to hold Africans awaiting embarkation for slave ships. As horrible as the overcrowded, inhumane, and evil conditions of people being kept and sold as slaves, at Cape Coast Castle, the Anglicans had a chapel directly over the dungeon.

Christian preachers have perverted the idea of mission to the point that many of us are sometimes embarrassed to say the word out loud.  

The former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, often had a way of speaking deep truth with a bit of humor. He said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”

Christians have a lot to answer for, but that doesn’t mean we ignore God’s invitation to be involved in mission.

My own understanding of mission has changed over the years. I grew up hearing about missionaries at church, giving money to particular missions, and even participating in special mission trips, locally and in other regions. During seminary, I spent a summer in India, working in an interfaith mission in Mumbai and in a Church of North India Anglican Church on Sundays.  But mission really began to inform my life in an important way, here in the Diocese of New York.

The Rev. Sylvia Vásquez worked as Canon for Congregational Development in the Diocese of New York, and when I worked at St. Mary the Virgin, we had Sylvia visit and make a presentation.

At one point, a parishioner asked Canon Vásquez the question that was probably on a lot of our minds. “Why should we invest time and money in mission with far away places when there is so much need right here at home?”  The person who asked the question went on to say, “I mean, there is hunger and homelessness and teenage pregnancy and drug abuse and poverty of all kinds right in our own neighborhoods.  Why are we talking about going to another part of the world?”  Canon Vásquez then said very gently to the person, “Can I ask you something?  May I ask – are you already involved in addressing any of those local problems you just mentioned?”  “Well, no,” the person explained, “It’s all just too overwhelming.  I mean, where does one begin to address all these societal and systemic problems?  I guess I just don’t know where to start.”

Canon Vásquez then began to explain that one reason to become involved in global mission is to learn from the people in other places, to see how they are tackling problems of almost overwhelming magnitude and to learn from their successes, their failures, their joys and their sorrows.  Sometimes visiting another place can give us a sharper perspective on our own situation. 

What Sylvia said made a lot of sense to me and has been something I’ve found to be true. Whenever I’ve become involved in the mission of a person or community in another place, I gain a new perspective on my own ministry field, as well as offer some support to the other.

Titus Pressler, a mission leader and theologian in our church, has written:

God is the missionary at the heart of Christian mission – that is a central insight of scripture.  Mission is not fundamentally something we do as Christians but a quality of God’s own being.  It is not a program of ours but the path of God’s action in the world.  The mission of the church, therefore, derives from the mission of God, and it has meaning only in relation to what God is up to in the universe.  Already engaged in mission, God simply invites us to participate in what God is doing.

Horizons of Mission, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Cowley, 2001) p.20.

The old saying might be true that “charity begins at home.” But God’s action doesn’t stop there. God’s activity moves and expands, and we’re invited to be alert and get involved

Today’s Gospel tells of Jesus and his disciples going up a mountain. There, Jesus begins to be filled with light. He’s transfigured, and with him appear Moses and Elijah. Moses represents the tradition of the Law and Elijah the tradition of the prophets.  The vision, this experience of God, is so overwhelming that Peter wants to stay right there. “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Peter wants to freeze the moment, to keep everything right there, to have their own little spiritual time. But Jesus has none of that. Jesus makes it clear that this is PART of God’s plan… they should say nothing until after the resurrection.

If Moses heard Peter make that offer about building huts for them to stay in, he probably would have been shaking his head, “No.” You can’t keep the love of God to yourself. Moses would go up to the mountain to speak with God, and those times must have been sweet beyond belief. But Moses didn’t become a hermit and spend all his days alone with God, he would go back down the mountain, again and again. He’d leave the presence of God to return and deal the very human assistant Joshua, with the elders who were getting anxious, and with the people who couldn’t keep themselves from making temporary, short-term gods to help them feel better.

Back on the Mount of the Transfiguration, the disciples are told that more of the plan will be revealed, and we can read in the last chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus does give the rest of God’s plan. After the Resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples and says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Go out and share the Good News. But let’s notice what Jesus says and does not say.

Jesus never said, “Go stand on a street corner and yell at people.”
He never said, “Walk through subway cars shouting scripture at people to repent.”
He never suggested trying to shape people into one’s own image.

If we are serious about following Jesus, if we’re serious about making disciples, about sharing the spirit that leads to baptism, then we should simply look at the life of Jesus and do what he did. He spent time with people. He healed, shared food, offered encouragement, spoke up for the weak and the left out. He spoke the hard truth to the stuck up and stingy, to the powerful and proud. Yes, Jesus called on people to repent and turn to God, but he did it with love and showed us exactly how to do it. And that what we should do when we participate in mission—close at home and far away.

I mentioned St. Mary the Virgin’s trips to Honduras, and we were energized and enlivened by our relationship with San Juan Evangelista. My church in Washington was deepened through a connection with a mission in Springs, South Africa, as well as its work with the St. John Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem.

At Holy Trinity, we leveraged a mission grant from the Diocese to help Christians in Iraq, and we’ll learn more about that ministry and our support when several Iraqi Christians visit in May. I have my own connections here and there, and keep discerning, exploring options, and listing to the Holy Spirit.

But I invite you to join me: where should we be deepening relationships—Puerto Rico? Mexico? The Middle East? South Africa?  Where do you have connections? Where do you hear God’s Spirit calling us to be involved, to be helpful and to be helped, to be challenged, and to be changed?

Of course, we will expand and enlarge mission locally—there’s plenty to do. But local and global mission are never mutually exclusive. They encourage each other and a healthy church has no bounds to its love.

In the Transfiguration Gospel, when the disciples feel overwhelmed and just about faint at the vision in front of them, Jesus says to them, “Get up and don’t be afraid.”

Praying with the Prayer for Mission in our Prayer Book, may God “inspire our witness to Christ, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection.” Amen.

Praying for the Mind of Christ

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2023. The scripture readings are Isaiah 58:1-9a, [9b-12], 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, [13-16], Matthew 5:13-20, and Psalm 112:1-9, (10).

Montauk Lighthouse- Montauk Point State Park

Salt and light are strong images. They gain even more strength in the teaching of Jesus. He ties them to faithfulness and suggests that by resembling salt and light we will not only be useful to him and to God, but we will please God, and will be a part of what Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s easy to see why these images have guided Christians for centuries. But taken out of context and blown out of proportion, salt and light become destructive and imperialistic.

As the Puritan John Winthrop sailed towards the Massachusetts Bay Colony, he preached a sermon on the ship entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity.” Winthrop said, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.” The words have been used again and again by preachers and presidents to inspire and to encourage. The trick is to remember that they are words having to do more with service than privilege. Too much salt can sting and ruin things.  Too strong a light can blind and confuse.

In his Letter to the Corinthians, Paul suggests how to navigate a middle way, moderate approach in the face of possible Gospel zealotry.

When Paul approaches the worldly and urbane Corinthians, he does so not as though he’s got all the light and they’re living in the dark. He doesn’t approach them as though he’s rubbing salt into a wound. Instead, he approaches them simply.  He tells them about Jesus Christ crucified. Paul describes his approach as one of weakness, fear, and trembling. Of humility, really. It’s as though Paul trusts God more than he trusts his own words or wisdom.

Paul describes beautifully the Spirit of God—the Spirit being that part of God’s movement and energy in the world that appears when words fail.  It’s the Spirit that soothes when answers are hidden, that accomplishes when plans fail. The Spirit is sometimes our last resort, but it’s often God’s first choice of presence in our lives. As scripture reminds, “The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”

And then Paul does an interesting thing. He relates this Spirit of God to the mind of Christ. In that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully human, his mind was filled with God and the things of God. And so, to be like Jesus Christ is to set our mind on the things he values and teaches and lives out.  To be like Jesus is to allow our mind to be filled with God and God’s Spirit.

Filled with the Spirit, we discover a funny thing: all of a sudden, we are acting and thinking and living like the people Jesus has described in the Gospel. With the Spirit of God pouring through us, we shine like light for others—not in a self-conscious or self-aggrandizing way, but in a way that comes from God. And we become salty, as well—not in a way that overpowers or offends, but in a way that is distinctive and delights. If you cook at all, you know that too much salt overwhelms a food and so you taste nothing but the salt. But just enough, and the salt encourages other flavors, and the whole dish is made better.

It’s that way in the world, as well. Empowered by the Spirit of God, we add our own Christian perspective and find that it adds to, rather than obliterates; it promotes rather than dominates.  Salt is strong enough to stand on its own, and that’s just the way our faith ought to be.

If we are centered on the Spirit, allow God to make us light and salt, then that second part of the Gospel really sort of takes care of itself.  The second part talks about the commandments of God remaining firm, and how, if we should break a commandment or teach others to do so we will be “least in the kingdom of God.” If we keep the commandments and teach others to do so, the Gospel says, we will be “great in the kingdom of God.”  All of this takes care of itself. Enlivened by the Spirit of God, we realize it when we fall, or fail, or break a commandment. And so we say we’re sorry. We might go to confession. We stop and re-evaluate and pray for the grace to carry on. Keeping the commandments is not the focus of our faith, but it becomes a natural by-product of living faithfully.

And so, how do we get this mind of Christ? How do we get the Spirit of God?

It begins at baptism.  There and then, the Holy Spirit is given to us. But we spend our lives living into the Spirit of God, through the process the church sometimes calls sanctification—a way of being made holy.

Another way of allowing the Spirit room in our lives is through prayer.

Some of you are familiar with the type of prayer known as Centering Prayer.  There are other forms very similar—Christian meditation, Buddhist and non-religious meditation, and others.  Centering Prayer works very simply.  One sits still in a chair or on a prayer stool or a mat, and one simply opens oneself to the Origin of all that exists. When a thought shows up, simply let it pass on through. Just return to the silence, the space, the place where you are inviting God to be. Sometimes a “centering word” is helpful.  It’s a little different from a mantra, which would be repeated over and over.  In Centering Prayer, the silence is welcome and the “centering word” is simply used to bring one back to center.

It can be anything like “grace,” or “blessing,” or Jesus’ word for God, “abba” or perhaps “amma.” The word isn’t the focus, it just reminds you to come back to center and simply “be.”

Centering prayer usually happens for about 20 minutes or more. It takes practice.  It’s counter-cultural because in such prayer, we’re not struggling to keep up with emails, with news, with tasks, with people, with expectations, with hopes. We’re not improving or producing or creating.  We’ve not even paying attention to our own faith, or beliefs, or prayers. It’s a time for being quiet, for practicing the quiet. As Cynthia Bourgeault describes it,

What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’

(Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

Whether it’s Centering Prayer, meditation, a good cup of tea and quiet few minutes, or a particular walk in the park—I encourage you to find something that centers you, that calls you again to the Spirit of God within you.  Each us is called to be salty, bright, freed and forgiven people, living in the Spirit of God and sharing God’s love with any who will have it. May we slow down, breathe, notice, and give thanks for the “mind of Christ” within us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.