Paying Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Being Neighborly

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Bearing Burdens

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With faces set towards Jerusalem

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin wrote,

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

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

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

 

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Broken in order to be Healed

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But even all of that can seem abstract.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Surprises of the Holy Spirit

Fiery HeartA sermon for June 9, 2019, the Day of Pentecost. The scripture readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 , and John 14:8-17, 25-27)

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a cartoon that has been making the rounds of social media this week.  It shows a group of people who look like the disciples, all kneeling in a circle.  Above their heads are tongues of fire, like the ones we just heard about in the Reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  But then, in the cartoon, there’s another disciple talking to a little boy, over to the side.  The little boy, seeing the flames, has brought a long stick with what appears to be a marshmallow on the end.  The disciple frowns at the little boy and says, “Don’t even THINK about it.”

Though it might not be what one typical says or hears in a sermon on the Day of Pentecost, I think one of the most powerful ways the Holy Spirit makes herself known in our lives is through humor.  Like humor, the Holy Spirit can be unpredictable and unruly.  The Holy Spirit sometimes defies custom or expectation and rarely stands on protocol or good manners.  The Holy Spirit is not to be ordered and measured and kept within bounds. The Holy Spirit moves through wind and fire and water, and just when we think we know what to look for in our lives, the Holy Spirit can move in yet a new, surprising way.

In today’s first reading, the Holy Spirit is described as like the “rush of a violent wind, filling all the house, and appearing in fire, as if in tongues of fire dancing over the heads of the disciples.” Like a mighty wind, the Holy Spirit often blows away whatever barriers there might have been between the disciples, barriers in understanding, barriers in language, barriers in experience or theology or personality. Like the wind blowing over desert sand, with the Holy Spirit, what was rough and uneven is made smooth and similar.

And yet, remember the old story about Elijah, tired, hunted by the queen, wondering if God had forgotten him.  Elijah hides in a cave and God shows up–but not exactly like Elijah imagines.  There blows a great wind,  but God is not in the wind.  Then there’s an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Finally, there’s fire, but God is not in the fire.  Once all of Elijah’s preconceptions of God’s appearance have been sorted through, God’s Spirit eventually makes herself known in a “still, small voice.”  Or as some translations say, “the sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

Though it was not the case for Elijah, God’s Spirit often does come as fire.  For Moses and the people of Israel, God’s Holy Fire led them through dark times, through the desert, and eventually into liberation.  In the Acts of the Apostles, the reading we heard a few minutes ago, we hear how these timid, scared, disorganized disciples are practically set “on fire” by the Holy Spirit. They leave their hideaway house inflamed with the love of God and a sense of mission that takes them to the ends of the world with the good news of Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit moves through wind and like fire but also moves through water. The Spirit moved over water at the beginning of creation, way back in Genesis. The Holy Spirit parted the waters at the Exodus, and opened up the way of freedom. The Holy Spirit used the image of a great fish to wash Jonah, bring him to himself, and set him again on the course of God.  And then, famously, at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit appeared as a dove over the water, with blessing, cleansing, and anointing.

Last week, we called down the Holy Spirit in a particular way over and in the waters of baptism, as we baptized Marion Diaz. We asked God to move with Spirit over the water and into the water and into little Marion:  to cleanse her from the power of sin (that she will doubtless face one day) and to strengthen her for a life lived in faithfulness.  As the priest or bishop anoints with Holy Oil, we say, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

As powerfully as those disciples in the upper room, in our baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit. The water in which we die is holy water. The water in which we are reborn is holy water, and no matter what we do (no matter what sin, what harm, what disaster we might create), we never fully outgrow its residue of that Holy Water. It clings to us. It stays with us.

At our baptism, we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit’s presence and movement, thought we get no promises on exactly how the Spirit may show up for us. She might come wind, to blow away whatever is extra and no longer needed. The winds of the Holy Spirit open our ears to hear scripture in a new way, or to hear music in a way that we might have never heard before, or perhaps like those early disciples, to open our ears to one another in some new way. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit comes as God’s sense of humor, to help us laugh at ourselves, to take ourselves less seriously and admit we might not be the center of the universe and have all the answers.

When I think of God’s Holy sense of humor, I think of words and images used by the 13th century monk and mystice, Meister Eckhart.  In words that lead us into next week, Trinity Sunday, Meister Eckhart laugher as a profound theological expression and linked it with his understanding of the Trinity. He asked, Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity?

I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us. (Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, 1983).

On this day when we celebrate the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the Spirit’s reminding, to her strengthening, to his inflaming, to peace-bestowing love that unsettles and eventually smiles us into smiling in the face of God.

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

 

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Learning to Pray

prayer11-720x380A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, June 2, 2019. The scripture readings are Acts 16:16-34Psalm 97Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20-21, and John 17:20-26

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last Sunday, at the end of the 11 am worship service, a parishioner was carrying his four-year-old daughter, and stopped to speak on their way out.  He said, “Father John, my daughter wants to say something to you.”  Immediately the little girl turned shy and wouldn’t look at me.  After several attempts, her father asked her, “What if I begin and you say it with me?”  And then the father and daughter began to say, “Now I lay me down to sleep…”  The little girl continued, “I pray the Lord my soul to sleep… no, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…”  She got a word or two mixed up, but she got the idea.

I thought about our little parishioner’s learning to pray this week, as I’ve thought about today’s scriptures.  Though she stumbled over a few syllables, she got the idea.  And with Christ praying alongside us, that’s really as developed a prayer as she’ll ever need.

The power of prayer runs throughout today’s scriptures.  The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us that our feelings about prayer don’t matter as much as we might think. In other words, it sometimes doesn’t much matter if we’re in the mood for prayer or if prayer comes naturally. It doesn’t necessarily matter if we even have warm feelings towards the person or the people we may include in our prayers—we can still pray for them, and allow God to work with the energy of our prayer.

In our first reading, Paul and Silas and some others are in 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) that 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 lose their good money, so Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten up. But they pray again.  They sing hymns, they praise God and call on God, and God 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.

Prayer finds its way into our second reading in a roundabout way.  Though the Revelation to John has been used in a multitude of ways—to encourage people, to scare people, to sell books… the Revelation is essentially a vision. It’s the other side of prayer. It’s what happens on God’s part in response to faithful prayer:  God shares his thoughts and plans and visions and dreams for us and for all of humanity. And what a vision John’s prayer finds: Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega.  He welcomes home his blessed ones—all those who have believed, who have been baptized, and who seek the love of God.  “Come,” says the Spirit of God, “come and drink, and wash, and frolic in the Holy Water of God.”  Christ’s coming will be soon.  But before, during, and after; throughout the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, we have his grace.  And that grace sustains us and enfolds us in his safekeeping.

In the Gospel, Jesus prays for his disciples and he prays for us.  He draws us closer to himself and to God through prayer, by prayer, because of prayer, in prayer.  And we can do the same.  We don’t have to be holy to pray. We don’t have to know anything in particular in order to pray.  We don’t even have to have the right motivation (whatever that might be).  It doesn’t matter what technique we use, or which words (if we use words)—if our intention is prayer, the God will hear that prayer.

And answers come.  They sometimes come disguised.  They usually come slowly.  They often come in ways or forms or by people who surprise us because in asking God for something, our own ideas sometimes cloud the process.  But God answers.  God shows up. God comes through.

Though the Church often seems to complicate prayer by modeling beautiful, well-crafted, poetic prayers; or by putting so much attention on complicated forms of chant or sung prayers; the great truth of our faith is that prayer is the simplest thing in the world.  It’s just talking with God and listening for God.

The four-year-old parishioner I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon is just learning to pray, using a well-known children’s prayer.  I’m sure she’ll learn some more prayers in the future, but her stammering attempt can remind us that the eloquence doesn’t matter as much as the communication. God waits to hear us and to answer, in return.

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

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A Ministry that Magnifies

A sermon offered at the celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Final Profession of Sister  Suzanne Elizabeth in the Community of St. John Baptist, May 26, 2019 in Mendham, NJ.  The Gospel is John 21:1-19.

I’ve become a little bit of an evangelist about a new app, a new mobile application on my smart phone. It’s even better than “Weather Bug,” which Sister Margo recommended to me some time ago. This new app–and I recommend it to you–is called “Mag Light.” It’s free, and it does what its name implies. It uses the flash on the phone, like the regular light feature, but even more, it uses the phone’s camera somehow to magnify things!

In a restaurant and can’t read the menu? Mag Light to rescue!
Can’t read the instructions on a medicine label or the expiration date on food? Mag Light reveals!

In my physical seeing, I need both aspects of this little application. Often, I need the light. But there are also many times when I also need the magnification.

It’s true for my physical seeing. But it’s also true for my spiritual seeing.

Today’s Gospel leaves us with the words of Jesus to Peter, but also to us: “Follow me.” And though they come in the form of a command, a request, a plea; we can experience them as a question. “How,” Lord?” “How are we to follow you?”

Well, the answer, I think has to do with both light and with magnification.

We see light and magnification in today’s Gospel as the disciples slowly awaken to the reality of the Resurrection. In Simon Peter’s great “re-do” with Jesus (his second chance after having denied Christ three times before the Crucifixion) it’s almost as though Jesus gradually increases the volume, adjusts the light, and gradually turns up a kind of mystical rheostat. “Do you love me more than these?” And then a little louder, a little brighter: “Do you love me?” And then brighter still, louder, and clearer, demanding even more clarity and focus from Peter, “DO you love me?”

Light and magnification happen also in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 3, Peter and John have healed a crippled beggar. But in Acts 4, they’re getting into trouble for it. Illumined by the Light of Christ, filled with his healing power, they magnify this light. It’s too large for them to hold on to, so they share it with the wounded and the weary. But to those with eyes for only the world, the light was too bright—they squint, and shut their eyes, and look the other way. But those with eyes to see are healed and made more.

In the 7th century, Pope Gregory wanted to enlarge the Church and so, launched a new mission to the Anglo-Saxons. He sent Augustine, who at that time, was prior of a monastery in Rome. Augustine clearly took with him the Light of Christ—the ability to convey something of the Risen Lord Jesus in his words and in his work. But Augustine also took with him something else. He didn’t need an application for the work of magnifying. As a monk, as a religious who lived under vows, Augustine carried with him, himself. His mission included himself as a complete human being formed in Christ—body-mind-soul—consecrated to God and living as a kind of icon of what faith might look like and how faith might play out in the world. It’s no wonder more people were converted. It’s no wonder the Church in Britain got organized, and seeds were planted that yield fruit even today.

The vowed life of a religious has a force and a form that is beloved of God. I’ve been reading about this recently in an incredibly helpful book called On Liturgical Asceticism by David Fagerberg. Professor Fagerberg teaches theology at Notre Dame and thinks and prays in line of Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh.

Fagerberg makes a powerful argument that the life of faith for every Christian is a vowed life, flowing from our baptism and shaped by the liturgy in which we participate in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Between the lay person and the professed religious, there should be no competition, no envy or resentment, since each has their own calling. He quotes Aidan Kavanagh that, “the monk’s [or nun’s] ministry or diakonia among his or her baptized peers in faith is to manifest the costs and radical conditions of Christian discipleship in Christ for all.” [Kavanagh, “Eastern Influences on the Rule of Saint Benedict,” p. 59, quoted in Fagerberg, On Liturgical Asceticism]. Fagerberg goes on to say

When things are enlarged, they are often easier to see, and this is a service the monk [or nun] gives to the Church. A small object lit from behind can extend a nearly limitless shadow if projected upon a flat landscape stretching without break to the horizon—say, for example, across a desert landscape. The [poverty of the religious] in the desert is a shadow of the baptismal liberty from avarice cast upon the vast desert landscape, which, by being elongated and exaggerated, is easier to understand. [Ibid., 137]

For more than fifty years—but especially for fifty years–Sister Suzanne Elizabeth has made following Christ easier to understand. She has underscored it. She has intensified it. She has lit it up as she has said and sung with Our Lady, “my soul magnifies… let my soul magnify … may my soul even more magnify….” She has shown us how to follow Christ. And she has helped us and others to see and enjoy, to be challenged and changed, to draw closer to the love of the Risen Christ, and to take our place in God’s magnifying grace.

As a nurse and infirmarian, Sister Suzanne Elizabeth has served as midwife to the healing love of Christ, quietly testifying to God’s shalom, already present and active even in the midst of suffering or sickness. As a teacher and leader with the National Altar Guild Association, her care and love for the beauty of holiness has been infectious. As a gardener, spiritual director, superior, and so much more—she has helped live out the faithful history of this order.

Thanks be to God for such a life. Sister Suzanne Elizabeth, may God continue to bless you richly, and continue to bless this community, the Church, and the world through your ministry.

I’ll probably keep talking about my little smart phone application that lights up and makes larger. But even more, I’ll keep talking about what God is doing through this order, through all our vowed religious, and I’ll try to keep talking about the special ways through your magnification, the Church is strengthened to follow Jesus.

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

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Waters that Trouble and Heal

bethesda-fountainA sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter.  The scripture readings are Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5, and John 5:1-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

This morning, I’m thinking a lot about Central Park. Not just because it’s such a beautiful day. Not just because there are probably a few people who usually might be in this building on a Sunday morning but today, are in the park somewhere. But I’m thinking about a particular part of the park—one of my favorites. I’m thinking about inside the park at 72nd Street. Down the stairs, across the terrace, overlooking the lake is the only statue called for in the original design of Central Park. It was also the first commission to go to a woman for a public work of art in New York City. Rising up in bronze with water cascading over is an appropriate object lesson for today’s Gospel. Bethesda Fountain, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, is crowned with the Angel of the Waters.

It depicts today’s story of the healing fountain in Jerusalem, Bethzatha or Bethesda, which was thought to get its healing properties because angels would dip down and stir the waters up. In Central Park, Bethesda Fountain commemorates the Croton Reservoir, which also meant healing for New Yorkers, underscored by the four cherubs on the fountain: Temperance, Purity, Health, and Peace.

Bethesda Fountain in Central Park highlights a verse in the Gospel of John that the editors of the New Revised Standard Bible decided to leave out and put only in a footnote. I think that’s too bad, since the verse adds some useful information about what people perceived the healing fountain. The version we read today says in verse 3: “3 In [the porticoes of the pool] lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed,” and then skips to verse 5, explaining that one man there had been ill for thirty-eight years. But the in-between verse, the one relegated to a footnote says, “for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.”
The old Paul Simon song might suggest we wait or look for one who “like a bridge over troubled water” lays down for us, saving us from having to enter the troubling waters. But today’s Gospel suggests otherwise. Healing comes from the troubled waters, not from places of calm.

This Gospel speaks to a number of people. 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 is just 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.

There are also 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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