Traveling with Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

After a long year of being cooped up, a lot of people are beginning to travel, or at least beginning to think about travelling. Many families are getting together for the first time, this Father’s Day weekend, to celebrate Dad, or the memory of Dad, or to combine with Juneteenth, or simply to give thanks for vaccines and the ability to move around and be together.

Maybe for all these reasons, as I listen to the scripture readings for today, I hear in them a kind of travel narrative. In today’s readings there are accounts of people who have been places. They have seen things, and they have been changed. 

In the very short reading from Job, God reminds Job that Job really has not been to as many places as he thinks. But God takes Job back.  But then in words and images God recounts to Job what it was like at the beginning, when God laid the very foundation of the earth. When God says to the very seas themselves, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.’” No, for all Job’s experience, put in that context, he really hasn’t seen very much at all.

With a word [God] called up the wind–
an ocean storm, towering waves!
You shot high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out;
your hearts were stuck in your throats.
You were spun like a top, you reeled like a drunk,
you didn’t know which way was up.
[But] then you called out to [the Lord] …
[and] he got you out in the nick of time.
He quieted the wind down to a whisper,
[and] put a muzzle on all the big waves.  (The Message, Psalm 107)

This trip across the Sea of Galilee quickly becomes the kind of travel story you hope you never have to tell—“Remember the time.” Remember that time in the storm. Remember that time when we got lost. Or even more tragic, remember that time when it felt like a storm and we lost someone we loved. The disciples are afraid and so they wake up Jesus who looks at them with surprise. He speaks and the storm is stopped. The disciples are stopped. Time is stopped. “Peace. Hush. Be quiet. Be still.”

Faith is movement. If we are in love with God, and or if we have the slightest bit of belief that God is in love with us—that love will change us. It moves us from place to place. I don’t know where this travel narrative of Holy Scripture intersects with your own movement today. It may be you’re in a good place, settled with your faith, confident with your relationship with God, collected in the midst of a sea of calm. Some of you are in that place: give thanks and draw strength from this time. 

All kinds of storms come our way.  Family can sometimes blow through our lives like an unruly storm. Sometimes we feel adrift and in a boat all alone. At work the winds can pick up now and then and we feel under attack. In relationships, the seas are not always calm. Even our church seems sometimes to be moving into deep waters, feeling alone in our particular boat while other churches seem to prefer the safety of the land, or the assurance of charted waters. But our faith allows us to be like those first disciples: to hang on to each other for the ride, to stay close to God our savior, and to look ahead without fear. 

W.H. Auden names well the landscape of our lives. Of Christ our travel guide, he 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.

                     W. H. Auden For the Time Being (a Christmas Oratorio)

We don’t always pack the way we should.  We’ll forget things here and there.  The weather may change on us. As Anne Lamott has written, “The road to enlightenment is long and difficult, and you should try not to forget snacks and magazines.” (Traveling Mercies).

We have the little things that sustain, but even more, we have God our Savior surrounding us, leading us, pushing us, holding us, carrying us, loving us always and forever. 

May we look out for each other along the way. May we enjoy the scenery and be strong and faithful travelers.

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

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The Faith that Grows Seeds

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

 

We’re very sorry, but the audio connection with Facebook failed for our June 13 recordings. We are trying to find answers for this and apologize for the problem. 

The written version of the sermon is here:

On this first of the ordinary Sundays, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, our worship returns to a familiar pattern.  We again have a prayer of confession.  We use green on the altar and in the vestments.  The music and hymns lead us to think about God in all God’s majesty and mystery, in broad and sometimes general ways.  The Church continues to observe feast days here and there, almost like exclamation marks in the narrative of God’s love for us, but most of the Sundays through the summer offer us space to grow and develop, to think and mature in our faith. And especially in today’s scripture readings, there’s a lot that is growing.

Growth runs through our scriptures today. In Ezekiel, God plants a tree as a symbol and reminder that God tends and cares for all his creatures, no matter what may come: storm, drought, or disaster. Both Ezekiel and the Psalm reminds us that those who allow God to do the planting–who let God be the Master Gardener—all those will flourish and bear fruit and live fresh, new lives season after season, even into old age.

Today’s Gospel comes in the form of a parable, or several parables—those stories that allow us to identify with various characters as the wear the story again and again. Because of this, whenever we read or hear a parable, there’s an invitation for us to step inside and try on some of the different characters and attitudes. Which one speaks to us today? Which one fits best? Which one challenges or offers comfort?

For example, in today’s story, you may identify with the sower, the one who plants seeds and hopes for the best. Whether seeds or seedlings, the hope is that there will be growth. It may be an idea or a practice or a project that you’re just beginning. You do a little to get it started, but then it’s out of your hands. It may be taken out of your hands, or other things may grow to overshadow your project—maybe there is the equivalent of a storm, or maybe the birds in your world eat up the seeds you’ve sown. But if you’re the sower, you make an initial investment and then over time, you have to manage your relationship to the seeds you’ve planted. How much will you try to control? How much will you let go? When will you ask for help?

On the other hand, you might hear today’s Gospel and identity a little with the seed. Perhaps you feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—a family, a relationship, a workplace, a social situation. Where you’ve been placed might be fertile ground with lots of resources and room for growth. Or, it might be a rocky place, full of challenges and rough spots.

Or maybe you’re just trying your best to put down roots somewhere, trying to find something that will stay still long enough to enjoy the sun, to absorb the rain, to find the energy and life within yourself to grow, to expand, to become.

For a number of reasons, one can feel like the seed—waiting on outside forces and trusting God. One can feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. But it’s those times that it’s especially important to remember that built into every seed–deep down–is the capacity to grow into something useful and beautiful.

The birds, too, play a part in the parable. The birds take shade. They find rest and refuge. Someone else has done the major planting and much of the growing, but one day, the birds too, might be called upon to add just the right component to God’s unfolding kingdom.

Jesus tells these parables to help us understand what he calls the Kingdom of God. This “Kingdom of God” is not so much a literal place as it is EVERY PLACE–, every place where God’s intention is allowed to take root and grow. The kingdom is full of mystery—it grows at its own rate. Some parts can be planned, laid out, and organized. But other areas of the kingdom are up to God’s own good grace—we have to let go.

Given where we are moving out of the pandemic, it might be that we feel like any seeds we might be trying to plant are either inconsequential or get blown away in the storm of the day. 

But that’s where faith comes in. With faith, we can also see God’s movement and growth in the hidden places. We see what initially looks only like pain and misery. We see disease and violence and poverty. We see a terribly distorted version of the world God has created. But then, with eyes of faith, we look closer. We can begin to see the seeds for compassion, for sharing, for sacrifice, and for healing.

Today we baptize Dylan, who is just beginning to grow. In that way, she’s like a little seed, full of potential and wonder, beauty and love. In baptism we add water. With Holy Oil we add nourishment. And with our prayers, we lift her into God’s love so that the light of Christ bloom in her life to bear good fruit.

Friends, the kingdom of God grows around us and within us. May God continue to grow us in faith and love.

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

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Corpus Christi Sunday: Reflecting on the Sacrament of Holy Communion

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

This morning, weather permitting, some churches will be taking the Holy Sacrament and leaving church.  They’ll be leaving the church building and walking through the neighborhood.  A few churches did this on Thursday and others do it today in a celebration of Corpus Christi Day, carrying the Blessed Sacrament out into the world, for all to adore and celebrate.

When I was first ordained, I served at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, and the practice there on Corpus Christi is to move through Times Square and then back into the church.  Every year, we would end up with ten, twenty, maybe fifty people following us back into church.  A part of it felt absolutely medieval, but another part felt like exactly the right kind of expression for a church in Times Square.

I still remember the rector of another parish hearing about the outdoor procession and getting very upset about it He was offended, he wrote in a newsletter article.  He felt that this walking through Times Square with the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood was a “dangerous practice,” since the Sacrament might easily be defiled, disparaged, or misunderstood.

Christian history reminds us of conflicts between Christians and often—mixed up in the politics and the power plays—there were differences in belief around the Eucharist (the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) or Holy Communion.  The extreme Protestant view (Baptists, some Presbyterians and others) would hold that the bread and wine (whether fermented or unfermented) are symbols and reminders of the loving meal Jesus shared with his disciples in the Last Supper.  The extreme Catholic view, which many call “Transubstantiation” holds that through the words of the priest, the bread and wine substantially and objectively become the body and blood of Christ.  Each Mass is (what some have called) an “unbloody sacrifice.”

Those of you who know the Anglican tradition or are used to the Episcopal way of viewing things will not be surprised to know that the Anglican view (of which the Episcopal Church is a part) is somewhere in the middle.  Our church’s official belief is in the Real Presence, though we don’t specific or demand that one understand the mystery of the Real Presence in exactly the same way.

Anglicans often recall the words of John Donne(1572–1631): “He was the Word that spake it;  He took the bread and brake it; And what that Word did make it; I do believe and take it”  (Divine Poems. On the Sacrament.)

In addition to historical conflicts and modern-day differences, the Holy Eucharist brings danger also when we take it seriously.  It can be dangerous because it can change our lives.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel puts it, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” And that’s where the danger really begins.

We can think about what it means to “abide in Christ,” to take the Body of Christ into our bodies by noting what our Book of Common Prayer says about the Eucharist.  Way in the back of the Prayer Book is a section call simply “The Catechism,” and in the part about the Holy Eucharist, the Catechism outlines what it calls “the benefits of the Eucharist.”

“The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our unions with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”

And hidden within each of these benefits, there are dangers and possibilities.

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Saint Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” This is dangerous medicine, then, for anything or anyone who might be interested in keeping us in sin. The devil will not look on such medicine as innocuous or harmless, nor will his minions. And so, the Eucharist helps us. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.

The second benefit according to the Catechism has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a culture that suggests we should live only for ourselves, that we try to obtain all that we can for ourselves with little regard for others; in a culture that in any way lifts up people like the Kardashians as important, relevant or meaningful—- the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is dangerous stuff.

In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underline that we are not so different from one another as we are sometimes led to believe. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marriage status are dissolved in the common chalice. They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.

Finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, this holy Sacrament, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending.

On Memorial Day our country paused to remember those who have died in service for us, for freedom and for the opportunities that this country symbolizes.  Danger and promise are all wrapped up in the idea of service, but we honor those who have died for our country, just as we honor those who have died for Christ by stepping through fear and danger and holding on to faith.

Strengthened by the Body and Blood of Christ, let the danger begin. Let us risk blasphemy, as Jesus did, as we try to show the Body of Christ to the world. Let us risk being misunderstood, as Jesus did, as we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to lift up the poor, to release those held in captivity. And let us risk the danger of faith, as our Savior Jesus did, taking up our cross daily and following him wherever he leads.

Jesus says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day …. the one who eats this bread will live forever.” May we live into these words, both dangerous and delicious.

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

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Dancing with God on Trinity Sunday

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

We regret that on May 30, our  11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist did not broadcast properly on Facebook Live. Please join us again next Sunday.

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Older translations used other terms, with Jesus saying that no one could see the kingdom of God unless the person was “born again” or “born anew.” Nicodemus asks him, “How can this be? How can someone be born when they are old? How can that happen?”

Jesus goes on to try to explain to Nicodemus what he has tried to explain to his friends, to the people at Cana, to the woman at the well, to the tax collectors and the religious officials. Jesus tries to explain to Nicodemus what he had tried to explain to his disciples again and again and again: that one must be open to the spirit. One must be open to the cleansing of baptismal waters. One must be open to God as God moves and makes his way among us. For God has SO loved the world, that God has come into it. God was born in the world, that we might be born again and born to eternal life.  To be born again, to be born anew, to be born from above– has to do with our being open to God however and whenever God comes to us.

The way that God calls us, the way that God meets us, can change over time. For the person who grows spiritually, the way we perceive God and the ways in which we meet God should change over time. A child who is loved by her parents may easily understand God as a parent. Learning to love the stories of Jesus, we may come to know God most powerfully through Jesus. Listening to God through the whole of life, the ups and downs, and all of the mysteries—we may become more attune to God as Spirit.  God finds us through whatever means meets us best.

The early church spoke of the Holy Trinity as having to do with God’s indwelling, with God’s mutual outpouring and movement into. The Trinity was understood as a dynamic: the Father always pouring love and light and energy into the Son, the Son always pouring himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit moving back into and around the Father and the Son. The word that some theologians have used to describe this continual activity of God is very close to the Greek work for dance, and so it became a popular way of speaking of the Trinity as a kind of dance of love. Brian McLaren puts it well when he writes,

“The Father, Son, and Spirit live in an eternal, joyful, vibrant dance of love and honor, rhythm and harmony, grace and beauty, giving and receiving. The universe was created to be an expression and extension of the dance of God—so all creatures share in the dynamic joy of movement, love, vitality, harmony, and celebration.” (Sojourners, March 2006)

With God there’s always dancing. And we can never be quite sure where God may lead.

In San Francisco, there’s an Episcopal Church that worship God with dancing in mind. The Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa is a church that was founded to try to reclaim the sense of wonder and celebration of the early church, and a famous part of their liturgy includes dancing.  Dancing is so much a part of the church, that when they built a real worship space some years ago, they did it with the particular idea of making room for dancing, for crowds and crowds of people to dance around the altar and with each other.  But even more amazing to me than the dancing parishioners is that on the walls, all around the inside of the church’s rotunda, there are pictures of the faithful—faithful saints of every age, class, custom, and condition—88 saints, and they’re all dancing.  

Dancing together are Sojourner Truth, Miriam, Origen, Malcolm X, Elizabeth I, Iqbal Masih, and Teresa of Avila. You can see who’s included HERE.

One of the longest-named holy people in from the Anglican Tradition is Samuel Joseph Isaac Schereschewski, a missionary who went to China to share the Gospel.  But arriving there, he became ill with a disease that left him paralyzed, so his plans changed.  Rather than give up, he stayed, and worked slowly and painstakingly at translating the Bible into Chinese, which he did.  As he put it, “except for the illness and the wheelchair,” he could never have accomplished that particular work.  And so, Schereschewski is pictured there, too, in his wheelchair, holding on to Ella Fitzgerald on his left and Pope John XXIII on the right.

This picture of saints dancing reminds us that “to dance” often appears to involve primarily the body.  But as any of us who feels awkward, or constrained, or restricted in any way knows, the dance begins inside long before it ever manifests itself.  The dance can be interior and intensely spiritual. The dance can be outward and explicitly political, such as the silent, haunting dance of the mothers of the disappeared who protest the violence and disappearance of their loved ones in El Salvador, in Chile, and in too many parts of the world.

God invites us to join in this dance of love—the love of God that overflows into all of creation. It doesn’t matter if we feel a little awkward. It doesn’t matter if we don’t think we know the steps or that we might stumble and fall occasionally. We’ll learn the steps. We’ll lean on each other, and we’ll continue to grow stronger in God’s love even as we invite others to join us.

May we, like Nicodemus— like all the matriarchs and patriarchs, saints and martyrs—may we be born from above. May we be open to God in whatever way God reveals, and may we have the faith to join the dance of God’s eternal love. 

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

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Spiritual Gifts

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Just before the pandemic, I went into a hardware store on the Upper East Side and was surprised to find myself in a conversation about the Holy Spirit.  I was wearing my collar and the person behind the register noticed it and began with, “You’re a minister. Can I ask you a question?” And I said, “Sure.” He asked, “Do you believe in the gift of the Holy Spirit?”  But before I could answer or ask exactly what he meant, he went on to express what I often associate with Pentecostal Christians. He wanted to know if I, personally, had received the gift of tongues.  If I had, he wanted to come and visit our church. But if not, then he would pray for me.”  It was one of those times that I wished I had more scripture committed to memory so that I could have answered his Bible-quoting with some of my own—as if that might accomplish anything.  I got out of the store as soon as possible, leaving him a little disappointed in me.

I think a lot of us associate gifts of the Spirit with that sort of dramatic, over-the-top experience. Speaking in tongues, snake handling (like we read about them doing in Appalachia) or instant healing, like they used to show on television and probably still do somewhere.

But the story from Acts is about the Holy Spirit’s wild and unlimited flow into the world.  The Spirit is not restricted to a couple of strange behaviors. 

In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture.

There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

That loaded word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.

The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like the man I met in the hardware store.

But there are other spiritual gifts.

As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.

As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but the way I’ve seen it is not so much through the miraculous speaking and understanding of languages.  But instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish.

When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen– sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly).

In Romans 12:6-8, Paul again talks about different spiritual gifts.  He says,

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; administration, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

The Day of Pentecost invites us to not only pray for new spiritual gifts, which we do and will continue to do in the season after the Day of Pentecost.

But also, and especially THIS Pentecost, I think the day also invites us to take inventory of the ways the Holy Spirit has moved among us in the last year and to give thanks.  The gift of fortitude has been by our side. The gift of resilience continues to keep us flexible and open. The gift of tongues has allowed us to speak and hear and encounter God through technology and computer programs we never thought we’d become so good at.

On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us all be more faithful Pentecostals.

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

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Jesus Prays for Us

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

On May 16, something went wrong in our recording of the 6 PM Community Eucharist. Please join us next week.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Most of you know that on Thursdays, we send a weekly newsletter from the church by email. If you read last week’s, then you probably saw that I explained in the opening article how the Vestry has approved our tip-toeing forward out of the pandemic. We are adding a final congregational hymn at 11 AM beginning next Sunday, and in June, we’ll be having a simple kind of coffee hour time outside, offering a time to catch up with one another. Just after we sent that email, the Center for Disease Control issued its new guidelines around mask-wearing outside and inside.

Though a part of me felt like my and the vestry’s thoughtful, careful discernment was all just wiped away by the CDC, another part of me was also gleeful at the idea of not having to wear a mask all the time. Even though we’ll keep wearing masks in the church until the Bishop of New York says we can take them off, the sort of whiplash effect of the day was yet another once of those experiences for me that we’ve all had this year. We feel conflicting emotions at the same time. While we weren’t so crazy about the recent past, confronted with an uncertain future, we hang on to what we can. Most of us don’t like change and don’t really like ambiguity. We don’t like being in-between.

This Sunday is an in-between kind of Sunday—between the Ascension of Jesus Christ, which was celebrated last Thursday, and the Day of Pentecost, which comes next Sunday. The Book of Acts describes the Ascension, coming 40 days after Easter Sunday. Jesus finishes talking with his disciples, a cloud surrounds him, and Jesus disappears in the cloud. When he had vanished, two men in white robes stood there and said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

And so, we’re a little like those disciples, standing between the Ascension and the full gift of Christ’s Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Jesus has ascended (whatever that might mean) and the Holy Spirit is about to burst on the scene with the blast of Pentecost, (whatever that means.) Given the odd nature of this day, we might well understand the disciples’ posture, staying still, gazing into heaven, wondering what it all means.

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

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

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

Bishop N.T. Wright, (Retired Bishop of Durham, England) suggests a contemporary way of reimagining Jesus’s words. Imagine a young mother, he says, who is about to leave her children in the care of her parents, the grandparents of the child. The mother makes a careful list, reminding the grandparents of the children’s favorite food, their sleeping habits, their play schedule, and all the other things that go into caring for the children.

One can imagine a mother in that situation giving detailed instructions as to how each child should be looked after, not because she didn’t trust her parents to look after them but because she did.” (John for Everyone, p. 94)

Jesus prays for his disciples and friends. He asks God to protect his friends and followers, and all “those who will believe through the word.” Jesus doesn’t ask God to take us out of the world—he knows that it is through people like us that the world can be changed—but he does ask God to protect us from evil, to keep an eye on us, to look out for us, to keep us close.
Jesus prays for us. This means everything. It means that there is a link between us and God, even when we might feel like we haven’t really done our part, or when we feel like we might have messed up that link. That Jesus prays for us means that when we have a tough decision to make, it means we don’t make it alone—he prays for us. It means that even as we try to figure out what it means to be a person of faith and integrity in relationships, at work, in social settings… Jesus prays for us, and is pulling for us to figure it out, and make our way through.
Jesus prays for us and it’s his love that carries the weight of the prayer. It’s his love for us that keeps that prayer in the presence of the Father. When we add our love, then there’s even more in the conversation. It’s through the asking, the answering, and the silences in-between, that prayer works.

Jesus prays for us, and with his spirit we can pray for each other and for ourselves. The prayer moves through a kind of frequency that is based on love– or even when it’s not quite love, but simply friendship, or concern, or regard—it serves as the medium through which prayer moves.
In the 80’s and 90’s studies were done on prayer. Often these were done where a person was not told they were being prayed for, or the person praying might have no relationship with the person being prayed for. Sometimes such prayer experiments were done using things other than people. The results, as you might expect, were inconclusive, at best. But some are doing newer studies, not so much trying to prove causation, but exploring the possibilities of prayer, of there being some connection between two people, and whether that connection can affect a person or both people, for good.

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

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

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

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

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The Love Christ Calls us to Show

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I lived and worked in midtown, I used to pass the big Robert Indiana sculpture that spelled LOVE in giant letters, arranged in a block. It was at 55th Street and 6th Avenues, though I understand it’s been removed for restoration. It used to be fun to watch people pose with it in interesting ways. Everyone was drawn to it. Everyone felt like they could approach it.

Love is like that. It seems approachable. But its easy proximity can also hide some of its complexity.

How can the same word express my love of chocolate, my love of a brown sweatshirt, my love of my mother and father, my love of my spouse, and my love of this parish? I love them all, but in truth, I love the things I just listed differently.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Love one another.” That’s clear enough—but is it? If most of us were we’re honest, we might admit that Jesus’s commandment to love one another is overwhelming.

It’s an ideal, but it’s unobtainable by most of us. In my own life, I realize the impossibility of those words when I’m honest enough to admit that, in truth, I don’t always like everyone—much less, love them. Some people are difficult. And yet, I have the words of Jesus in my head, that I “Should” love… and without really thinking about what that means, I feel burdened and unworthy by the reality of how far I am from the goal.

We can all feel a bit unworthy, if we read about those first Christians with a kind of “stained glass” lens. We read how the earliest Christians were known by the love they showed for each other. And then we look at our church or denomination or the fragmented state of Christianity, and notice that we don’t always love very well. Us or other Christians are not especially noticed for being loving.

I recall the wonderful honesty of a former parishioner, who would say, “I know Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but sometimes I have to love from across the street.” And while she meant that as a kind of confession, she was actually naming a kind of love that has just as much integrity as other kinds of love. It’s just that the English language doesn’t invite us to reflect on different kinds of love.

Just as love is not always straightforward or clear in our world—it’s more complicated in the scriptures, too. Especially in John’s Gospel, there is a lot of complexity around this idea of love.

John uses different words to talk about love—there is (the Greek word storge) the love that is really more of a simple affection for someone.

There is (philia) the kind of love one has for a friend.

There is eros, (not really erotic, in the way our culture uses it), but eros is the romantic love that involves feeling, romance, and a kind of longing.

And there’s the love John talks about most for Christians, the love of agape.

Jesus doesn’t call us to feel eros toward everyone we meet. We are not created for, nor expected to feel warm fuzzies every time we encounter someone. He calls us, he commands us, to love one another, but he commands us to love with agape love.

Agape love describes an attitude. This agape love has to do with a willingness to yield to the other, a kind of availability for others. In full expression, it has to do with giving of one’s life in sacrifice for another. Agape seeks to serve others and moves out of oneself into the realm of others—quite honestly, whether we like them or not.

This is the kind of love we hear about in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. We might get a little tripped up by the strange language of the “circumcised” and the “uncircumsized,” but this is basically spiritual shorthand to talk about those followers of Jesus who were raised as Jews and those who had come to faith in Jesus, but were foreigners, non-Jews, outsiders. In a preview of the Day of Pentecost, Peter is just astounded that God’s Spirit has fallen on these newcomers, these foreigners, just as fully as God’s Spirit has fallen on those who were raised in the faith, followed all the religious traditions, and always said their prayers. Peter is able to love the newcomers because he sees the fruit of their faith and sees evidence of God’s love for them.

Agape love is powerful stuff because it begins with God, not with a good feeling you or I might have. God gave himself to the world. God’s love came to live with humanity in the work and person of Jesus. That love of his has been let loose in the world making it possible for that same love to move through us, if we let it.

This is the love of God moving through us, and it has nothing to do with how nice I am, or how holy I am, or even how good we might be— it is the pure and perfect love of God that flows through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Agape love doesn’t even depend on the object of its loving power. This kind of love loves the other person not because they are worthy or good or in any way inspire love, but simply because it is the nature of God’s love to love. And that unloving person, by the grace of God’s love, can eventually be loved into being loving.

In C.S. Lewis’s little book, The Four Loves, Lewis quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson pointing out that when someone says, “Do you love me?” They’re really asking, “Do you see the same truth?” Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth, as I?”

C. S. Lewis elaborates on this. He points out that the person who goes through life simply looking for friends may never make any. This is because the very condition of making friends is that we should want something beyond the friendship. The friendship must be about something. Those who have nothing can share nothing, and those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers.

Lewis points out that when friendship is based on agape love, the friendship doesn’t depend upon the particulars of this person or that. We become friends without knowing or caring about whether a person is single or in a relationship, how the person earns a living, or where the person lives. The real question remains, “Do you see the same truth?” “Do you care about the same truth?” Lewis suggests that friendship based in agape love is a little like world leaders from independent states who meet on neutral ground. In the neutral space they are freed from their contexts. They are freed to be something new.

This is a good day to think about love, this day many celebrate as Mother’s Day. Many of us have enjoyed a good and loving relationship with our mothers and today is a natural and easy day. But others have a more complicated relationship and the day shares in those complications. Some perhaps have never felt love from their mother and so find they find the whole notion perplexing.

But just as a mother’s love might be multi-leveled and complex, and our love for a mother might be complicated, we are called to be people of Christ’s love. The love of Christ is not a kiss to be caught, but rather, a willingness to look beyond the self for a truth that can be shared. To love one another means to give of ourselves—our money, our talents, our minds, our hearts, and to give to others that they may be loved into loving. This is how we will be saved. This is how the world will be saved.

Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus Christ that moves through us, that changes us, that brings us to God.

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

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Grafted by God

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

If we were a different sort of church, one that was used to all kinds of things happening in the place of the sermon, then at this point, on this day, I would love to invite us all to go outside into the church garden. There, I would turn things over to a guest from the New York Botanical Garden or the Central Park Conservancy or somewhere, would then then show us, tell us, and teach us all about grafting.

Grafting, is of course, that way of propagating plants where a part of one plant is fused with, inserted in, or joined with, another plant. Sometimes a cut is made in the hosting plant and a bud from another plant is inserted. Sometimes plants simply grow very closely, eventually growing into each other, much like a couple that lives and loves together over many years. At other times in grafting, the main plant (the stock) is simply split, and the other plant (the scion) is then inserted into the cleft. The place where they are joined is then covered with a grafting compound so that the new bond can build and grow and strengthen.

Grafting is used to create beauty, sometimes to create hardiness, for repair, and sometimes to create more pollen. And so, if we were that other sort of church, and we were all outside right now, having received a show-and-tell lesson on grafting, I would then have someone read the Gospel for today.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. . . . I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. . . . Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Jesus is the vine onto which we, all of us, are grafted. A place is made for us. Sometimes that place is made through difficulty, through painful changes, through what feel like growing pains. And sometimes we’re grafted into Christ’s Body, which is the Church, in ways that feel a little crowded at first, a little like we’re not getting all the individual attention we deserve. But with faith and time, we grow into realizing that he is the vine.

We grow into being the branches.

We see how this begins to happen in today’s first reading, as Philip tries to answer the questions of the Ethiopian eunuch. God is the master gardener here, sending Philip toward Gaza, having Philip meet the Ethiopian, and then out of the meeting of these two very different people, from very different places and backgrounds, God makes something new. The Ethiopian is baptized. He is grafted on to the life of God in this world, the very life of Christ in this world. As the Ethiopian is baptized, he begins to become a little more like Jesus. But at the same time, the Body of Christ (the Church) begins to change ever so slightly as it takes on the complexion, the character, and even the possible complications of including this newest member of the Church, an Ethiopian eunuch.

This grafting, this joining, this adding of members to Christ’s body still begins with baptism. Back in October, several of us gathered in the garden to baptize a baby whose birth was not at all certain. Once he was here, his parents very much wanted a baptism, but the virus was bad in their Brooklyn neighborhood and they weren’t sure how safety get from there to here. We worked out a garden baptism. We grafted little Samuel on to the Body of Christ. His family has come a couple of times since and they’ll be here when things are safer. But who knows what kind of beauty he will bring. We as the branches that enfold and support and shield and strengthen, and on that day, he became a part of the vine, and God has begun doing something new again in Samuel, and his family.

We could still go outside and look closely at the garden. We could see what God is doing out there, and hear the Gospel in that context. But with eyes of faith, we can see the same thing right here.

Especially during the pandemic, we’ve been busy gardening. People of faith all over have gardened—or not gardened. Some have done the equivalent of digging up the plants, putting them into the basement for safety, saying a prayer, and hoping for the best. I hope something grows, as well, once things are brought back into daylight. 

Others of us have experimented and gotten dirty.  Now I don’t want to get smug or proud, but I am grateful that you and the vestry have joined me in using the tools we have, digging in some new ways, and being open to what new practices, perspectives, and people God might graft onto this particular vine. Some of what we’ve tried has not always grown. God will continue to do some weeding and pruning. Of course—that’s part of the experience, part of the growth.

We’ve got a lot to learn with changes in climate and growth patterns. We will need some new tools.  And we always need more gardeners to help and invite and assist in God’s work of graceful grafting.

We can look around and see the variety and beauty of God’s gardening work, as God has grafted us on to his Church. Sometimes the graft takes beautifully, and sometimes it needs a little more care, but whatever the case, the scriptures today remind us that Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, and God will tend us and watch over us until we grow into the very perfection of his love. Thanks be to God.

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Christ the Good Shepherd

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

Every year on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear a Gospel reading that reminds us of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  As far as sheep farming might be from some of us, there’s something almost archetypal about the idea of a shepherd as being strong, kind, watchful, pursuing the lost, binding up the wounded, eager to gather in more sheep (and goats, too.) One of the Church’s best children’s education programs is called the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, because its developer, steeped in the wisdom of the Montessori method, understood that very small children get the concept of a shepherd who loves them and calls them by name.

A loving shepherd empowers us to be loving and to share that love. We see that in our continued readings from the Acts of the Apostles, as Peter and the other disciples move about healing and preaching. They get into trouble, but they’re undeterred. They know the Good Shepherd and they know the Good Shepherd knows and loves them.

The simplicity of a child’s faith is in that classic poem by the English Romantic poet William Blake. Blake has a child ask,

Little Lamb who made thee
        Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
         Little Lamb who made thee
         Dost thou know who made thee?

I sometimes wish we lived in such a world of streams and meads in which everyone had clothing of delight, softness and safety. 

As I pray about the ongoing shootings and gun violence in our country—the shootings by crazy, disturbed individuals, as well as the shootings by police—I watch some of the British crime shows with wonder as I notice that most police do not carry weapons.  Not only does that mean there are fewer police shootings, but it also reminds us that the UK has fewer citizens who understand gun ownership as an extension of their identity.  Can’t we go back to easier days? Or as Rodney King asked—with the hopefulness of a child, “Can’t we all just get along?”

We know the answer is more complicated.

Psalm 23 reminds us that we sometimes walk in the valley of the shadow of death, that evil exists, and there will always be those “who trouble us,” enemies….nevertheless (and there’s faith in that word, nevertheless) THOU, O Good Shepherd, art with us.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus also is clear-eyed about the pasture.  Thieves and bandits try to climb over the fence. Strangers try to mislead. Some just want to kill and steal and destroy. There will be wolves, and hired hands who are unreliable. These are Jesus’s words, not the cynical notes of my faith. Jesus should know, after all, because he is the sacrificial lamb, who gives his own life for the clearing away of death and evil and injustice. By identifying as the victim, Jesus has turned the system inside-out.  Yet, nevertheless, Jesus calls us by name.

And what’s even better is that the folks we see and know as those within the fold are not even the half of it. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  We don’t know exactly who Jesus means—maybe it’s the Jews who have not understood his coming. Maybe it’s the foreigners. Maybe it’s the cynical or the doubtful, but whoever they are, Jesus’s comment seems to suggest that we never give up praying for others—for their conversion to love, for their healing and hope, and for their joining us in everlasting life.

Literature professors, poets, and people far smarter than me will say that for one to really understand William Blake’s poem, “The Lamb,” one also needs to read and keep in mind, the parallel poem, “The Tyger.”

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

In other words, how could a benevolent, loving God, a God who creates and loves little sheep, also be the creator of something as vicious, cold, and killing as a tiger?  What was God thinking? Was this a mistake? Where do we place evil in a world in which we insist on good?

It comes back to those shady characters Jesus mentions in the Gospel, doesn’t it?  This side of heaven, there will always be thieves, murderers, and swindlers.  But the Good Shepherd continues to lead, to love, and to call us by name.

If you recall the first stanza of Blake’s “The Lamb,” you recall the child asks the sheep, “Who made you?” In the second stanza, the child speaks with the wisdom of faith and assurance, answering their own question:

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake has two different poems to express the Christian dilemma of good and evil, of light and dark, of hatred and love existing in the same world. We are not to despair. We are never to give up.  But to keep listening and following our own name, as Jesus calls us. We’re called to keep working and praying for the conversion of the world, as the Good Shepherd has a lot of other sheep and much bigger pasture. (Our beloved Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park will be magnified by the thousands and millions in heaven.)

The choir sings the beautiful Bairstow paraphrase of Psalm 23 on our behalf a little later (but we’ll sing it ourselves before too long,)

And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
Within Thy house for ever.

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

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Heavenly Bodies: Christ’s & Our Own

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

The written version of the sermon is here:

St. Francis, the 12th century holy man and preacher, who confounded people in his day and in ours, had a difficult relationship with his own body. Like many religious, for most of his life, he privileged the life of the spirit—a relationship with God, a deep and steady prayer life, outreach and compassion with the poor, and in fact an identity with the poor—he valued that life over the tedious, boring, day-to-day maintenance of his own body. In fact, as St. Francis referred to all of creation as a sister or brother, he referred to his body as Brother Ass.  Brother Ass was like a mule or a donkey—necessary for getting work done, but stubborn, burdensome, and sometimes with a will of its own. The body, Brother Ass, for St. Francis, was to be endured.

Some think that when Francis was young and held as a prisoner of war for a time, he must have contracted malaria, which returned from time to time throughout his life. He had stomach problems and may have had an ulcer. He had eye problems that were given painful treatments that didn’t help. Add to this that Francis pushed himself, and was often emotionally isolated from the very community he had inspired.

One day, later in life, Francis was fussing about his body, Brother Ass. He asked a brother what he should do, and the young brother helped Francis see that Francis offered kindness, compassion, and mercy to all of creation, EXCEPT for his own body.  And yet, that body had given him the means to be of use to Christ in the first place. Shouldn’t he show his own body a little compassion? Francis heard these words as straight from God, so said to himself, “Cheer up Brother Body, and forgive me; for I will now gladly do as you please, and gladly hurry to relieve your complaints!”   (The Remembrance of the Desire of a Soul, Ch. 160, FA:ED, Vol 2, p. 383.)

We give thanks for the Resurrection of the Body of Christ, and that means that we also should give thanks for the existence of our own bodies.

In the first reading we heard this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter has just healed beggar who was disabled. But the people want to try to understand it, justify it, or explain it.  To them, Peter says, “Here is life renewed.” “Faith in [the name of Jesus Christ] his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” The healing power of the resurrection has found a home in this man, now able to walk around and praise God.

In the Gospel from Luke, Jesus again appears to his disciples. He breathes on them and they receive the Holy Spirit, but when the disciples seem baffled by all of this, Jesus brings them back to earth by asking for food. As if to prove that he is more than a ghost or a spirit, Jesus is hungry and wants to eat with them. And so they eat fish right there. Jesus then explains that they are witnesses to all that Jesus has done and said, and are meant to carry on this work of healing and forgiving and renewing people in the love of God out of Jerusalem into the whole world. And they will be doing this with their bodies.

Some years when I reflect on this Gospel of Luke, I like to talk about how the Holy Spirit is given in this passage and how that works alongside the Spirit’s movement on Pentecost.  But this year, I hear the Spirit reminding me that Jesus took his body seriously, and we take ours seriously, as well.

One might think that during a pandemic, we would be hyper-focused on our bodies and doing all we can to avoid getting a virus.  But as we joke about the Covid-15 a lot of us have put on (the extra pounds through stress eating and worry and lack of movement), a lot of us spend increasing amounts of time interacting with people through screens.  Though we are communicating more than ever (and that has blessings) we should never lose sight that we are embodied and Christianity is an embodies faith.

Our eating and drinking together, our shaking hands and hugging—we have missed and we mourn. But let’s not pretend they’re not coming back. Of course they are. We can say things in silent proximity that are simply impossible to convey through a screen, an email, or a phone call. These are good substitutions when we can’t be together, but let’s never forget that they are substitutions.

At every celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we remember how Jesus shared a meal with his disciples and transformed that meal by saying that in the blessing, the breaking, and the sharing, he was also sharing his body and blood with them. In Holy Communion, we share in Christ’s Body and Blood, and gain a bit of that Resurrection Spirit into our bodies.

Jesus healed and brought new life into the bodies around him.
St. Francis eventually came to show compassion to his body.
And we, too, are called to be good stewards of the bodies God has given us.

The point of this sermon is not that anyone would feel guilty about mistreating their body or feel shamed in any way.  But I hear God’s Spirit calling us to remember that we are given these miraculous bodies to learn from and to live with. How might we show compassion to ourselves? How might we take better care and be better stewards?  How might we invite God’s healing and helping power to make us stronger and more faithful?

The Collect of the Day invites reminds us of how the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of bread. May our eyes be opened, as well, so that we might behold the risen Lord and allow him to redeem our bodies, minds, and souls.  Amen.

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