Water for Living

Children playing in water spouts, Boston, MA
A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 17:1-7Psalm 95Romans 5:1-11, and John 4:5-42

Listen to a version of the sermon HERE

As you know, we are in the Church season of Lent.  That word, “Lent,” is thought to originate from the Old English word for Spring, “lente,” (and a similar word in Dutch and German) which points to the lengthening of daylight, the lengthening of days, as we move into spring. Nature waits for warmer weather. Students and teachers have waited for Spring Break, and for many, that wait is over. We perhaps wait for certain things trees or flowers to bloom, or for some other indicator of the change in season.

For myself, along with many others in our neighborhood, I’m waiting for the water fountains to be turned back on in Carl Schurz Park.  Like in other parks, the drinking fountains and other fountains are drained and prepared for winter, so the pipes won’t freeze.  So there will be some special day ahead, when thirsty people, and especially thirsty dogs—can drink from the fountains in the park.  What makes the fountains so great is that there’s a place at the top for people to drink, but also a little built-in basin with its own supply for dogs to drink from at the bottom.  When the water flows again, I don’t have to take extra water to the dog run, I don’t have to be embarrassed by a dog that’s out of breath and thirsty and makes me look like a bad owner, and finally—when the water is running, I’ll know it’s Spring.

Today’s scriptures are about thirst.

In the first reading we hear how the people of Israel feel like they’re about to die of thirst. It’s a literal thirst, to be sure. But it also seems to be a partly spiritual thirst. After wandering in the desert, they begin to wonder: Has the Lord forgotten us? Is Moses up to the task of leading us? They’re stuck in a cycle of bickering and fussing with each other, of feeling like they’re being tested. Will they ever be relieved of this thirst, this doubt, this frustration? God hears their prayer and Moses makes a miracle. As the psalmist sings, “He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers. He smote the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed.” (Psalm 78)

But water doesn’t always come so easily. In the Gospel, water is almost bargained over. We have this wonderful (if long) story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman. It takes place around water, with water, about water. It’s a great conversation between the woman and Jesus. There’s a give and take, a back and forth about it.

The Samaritan woman is skeptical. She’s cautious. She wonders if Jesus is just another charmer whose promises are empty. But she still listens, because she’s thirsty for some good news, some glimmer of new life. Responding to her questions, Jesus explains about the water that he can give. He can give water that quenches thirst, water that washes, that completes us, and buoys us up into the loving arms of God.

This story is important because it shows us Jesus going outside the social norms of his day and moving beyond the racial and gender norms of his culture to befriend this Samaritan woman. It reminds us that Christian faith, at its best, moves outward, invites and encourages.

The story is also important because it shows us Jesus as the Lord of Creation—of all creation– and that includes water. The water is physical and literal, but it is also spiritual. It symbolizes faith itself—our ability to believe that Jesus came, died and rose for us. The water is also hope—hope for God’s protection and guidance, hope for God’s good purposes in our lives and in our world, and hope for our eternal life in God. And finally, the water represents charity—water that is shared, faith that is shared, belief that is shared.

The Samaritan woman is offered living water by Jesus and it’s interesting to me to notice what she does and what she does NOT do. She does not commit herself to a life of meditation upon the water. She does not build a shrine there at the well, a shrine to spend all her days at. She does not start a new form of worship around the water. Instead, she becomes a disciple. She becomes a witness and she goes around telling people about Jesus. In other words, she doesn’t hoard the water or save it up for another dry spell. She goes out offering Living Water to others.

The season of Lent invites us to notice our thirst. For what do we hunger and thirst? Do you hunger for health or healing? For relationship, for someone to love or someone to love you back? Do you hunger for meaningful work, or for a new start with someone, or for some burst of new energy or creativity in your life? We don’t know exactly what was going on in the life of the Samaritan woman who met Jesus at the well, but she had the faith to come thirst, and she had the courage to ask Jesus for water.

Lent also invites us to notice others’ thirst.  This Wednesday is the United Nations’ World Water Day, a day to highlight especially the need for clean and accessible water for all people. Trinity Church’s Trinity Institute will be meeting this week downtown and they’ll be talking about the problems with getting and keeping safe water, the progress in helping others, and the connections between water, justice, and God’s love. There are some simple things we can do.

Episcopal Relief and Development sponsors programs in specific places around the world, digging wells, helping build clean water facilities, and supporting people to create infrastructure. You can donate to ERD programs.

Another way of helping someone is through the online site Kiva, through which one can read about an individual in need, and you can make a micro loan to the person. You can loan as little as $25, that can go a long way toward helping someone get water for living THIS life.

And then, if you have time and energy, you can volunteer. Riverkeeper is a local organization that coordinates cleanup days for the Hudson and other parts of the NYC watershed, as well as offering educational opportunities and ways of advocating for clean and safe water.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus asks for water, and in his asking, he asks with all those who thirst.  The Samaritan woman represents all those who go to great lengths to get drinking water, but also those who seek Living Water.

There’s a wonderful old hymn by Fanny Crosby that sees Jesus as the one who quenches eternal thirst. It sings,

Come with thy sins to the fountain, Come with thy burden of grief;
Bury them deep in its waters, There thou wilt find a relief.
Come as thou art to the fountain, Jesus is waiting for thee;

What though thy sins are like crimson, White as the snow they shall be.
Come and be healed at the fountain, List to the peace speaking voice;
Over a sinner returning Now let the angels rejoice.

Christ welcomes us to bring our hungers, our thirst, no our longing. And he will carry us.

With the persistence, the tenacity, the honesty, and the faith of the woman at the well, let us ask God to quench our thirst this day and always.

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

 

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Born Again (and again and again)

Tanner_Nicodemus a PAFA

“Nicodemus” by Henry O. Tanner, 1899. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

A sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 12:1-4aPsalm 121Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, and John 3:1-17

Listen to the sermon HERE.

On the night before Easter, at the Great Vigil, the church gathers to hear again how God has been working to save his people, from the beginning of time. God saved the People of Israel. God saved those who met Jesus and followed him, and God saves us still. One of the scripture readings often heard in that liturgy is from the Book of Ezekiel (36:24-28). God says

I will . . . bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your impurities . . . A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you . . . .

A new heart and a new spirit. This promise comes when people are worn out. They’re tired. They’re beaten. They’ve almost given up. But God gives hope and God makes a promise. Easter, itself, with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, brings the ultimate in a new creation, and the whole season of Easter is a prolonged celebration and meditation on what it means for us, that we have the hope of eternal life.

But we get a sample of that today.  In today’s scripture, we get a foretaste of God’s life-giving Spirit. We see a bit of it in the first reading, and we get a close-up view in the Gospel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though we hope the spiritual life can be predictable and linear—when we think about it, the spiritual life is just that—a life, and life is often filled with disruptions and surprises.  A diagnosis from the doctor can change everything. A changing economy or downsizing can change everything. A disaster can change the life we thought we were living. A death of someone we love can disorient us and seem to change everything.

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

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

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

A friend of mine was recently reflecting on the time she lost her job a few years ago. With the loss of her job, not only did she lose her income, her health insurance, her sense of stability, but she also felt like she had lost her identity, since her job was so much a part of her own self-understanding. But, as she puts it, after a while, she realized that she needed to believe in her own journey again. Though she had always thought she had life planned and plotted out, clearly, something else was going to happen. Life wasn’t over, just changed. She had lost one identity, but life was inviting her to find a new one. She had to regain belief in her own journey, that even though the pathway might be through the fog, with the help of others, and with the help of God, she would make it.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Temptations Close at Hand

christ-in-desertA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7Psalm 32Romans 5:12-19, and Matthew 4:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Evelyn Underhill has suggested that “No Christian escapes a taste of the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.” (Fruits of the Spirit). No Christian escapes a “taste of the wilderness,” not even, it seems, Christ himself.

We all get a taste of the wilderness, I think, because, we make our way to the Promised Land, not as saints, not as perfect beings like angels or superheroes.  But we all get a taste of the wilderness because we make our way to the Promised Land as ourselves—our broken but trying-our-best selves.  And along the way, in the wilderness, we face temptations that are personal.  We are tempted by things that are within our reach. The things that most tempt me most are not only things that I might want, but also, they’re usually things that, with the right shift of resources and energy, I can have. For example, I’m not tempted to stop what I’m doing and pursue my golf as a full-time career— I’m not very good at golf, and it’s not in any way within reach.  But if you caught me after a long week, feeling sorry for myself, and you suggested I might make a bundle in advertising, or public relations—that might be tempting.  It would be tempting because, given the right circumstances, those other things might conceivably be within reach.

What made the temptations alluring for Jesus was precisely that they fell within the range of what he could have done and could have had.

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

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

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

The orthodox Christian understanding of Jesus is that has two natures:  one divine and one human, and somehow through the miracle of God, both natures are full and complete.  Jesus is fully human, and I love that, because that’s the part I can relate to so easily.  I think Jesus must have been tempted a lot.  At least, as I read the scriptures and imagine my human response to some of the situations he encountered, I certainly would have been tempted.  When he was confronted by the Pharisees in their tedious arguments over the jot and tittle of the law—don’t you think Jesus might have been tempted to really let them have it—to level them with an argument so astounding that it would make them cry, or simply to have the building fall on them and be done with them? When the people were always wanting quick miracles, easy answers and immediate healings, don’t you think Jesus, at some point, was tempted to respond with impatience or exhaustion or in some other all-too-human way?

And yet, in the face of each temptation, Jesus makes a choice. And he chooses towards God.

Temptation is like that for us, as well—it always asks us to choose.

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

God asks that we live by faith—to be connected to him, to be in a relationship with him, to be alive in him.  Faith in God, then—even floundering faith or doubting faith or here-today-gone-tomorrow faith gives us the presence of God today, and we will have what we need.  Faith tomorrow will take care of tomorrow, and so on for the next day, and the next day, and the next.  Other gods promise things they can’t deliver, like immediate results or a kind of spiritual scam for the future, with the empty promise that if we accumulate and hoard today, we’ll be happy another day.

Each of the temptations the devil puts to Jesus has to do with immediate things. You’re hungry? Then, let’s eat. You’re competent and smart—you shouldn’t let that talent go to waste, go into something where you can control people and get your way. Rise to the top.  You should get what you deserve. The devil finally gets a little sloppy and desperate as he taunts, “why don’t you jump of this pinnacle and put God to the test, just test God and see if he’ll deliver you?”

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

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

The season of lent invites us to think about the choices we make. It invites us to work on our skills in discerning the difference between God and gods, between light and shiny things. (As the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book this year reminds us, “What we see we value.” So we should practice seeing like Jesus.)

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

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

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

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

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Transfigurations

fra-angelico-transfiguration
A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Exodus 24:12-18Psalm 992 Peter 1:16-21, and Matthew 17:1-9

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Old Testament reading and Gospel have a few things in common. They are both filled with mountains. They are both filled with mysteries. And they are both filled with momentous changes.

In the Reading from Exodus, Moses and Joshua start up the mountain, but Moses goes further. He goes so far that he enters a cloud. And this cloud wraps him round with the Glory of God and soon Moses begins to get directions from God for how the people should worship God and how they will be able to follow God faithfully in the future. Moses gets details on the making of the Ark of the Covenant, lamp stands, the tabernacle—various objects which would symbolize God’s presence among the people.  Loaded down with plans and expectations, Moses moves out of the cloud and back in, amongst the people he has been called to serve.

Again, in the Gospel, there’s a mountain. But this time it’s Jesus and a few of the disciples who go up the mountain and there up high, Jesus is transfigured. He is changed. They see light, there is brightness all around and suddenly next to Jesus are Moses and Elijah. These are endorsements far beyond anything politicians might hope for. Here is Moses, representing the tradition of the law in Israel and Elijah, representing the tradition of the prophets. Together they offer strength and support. And then God speaks from the cloud: “This is my beloved; in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

People have scratched their heads and wondered about this passage ever since people have passed on holy stories and read the Bible. The church wonders so much that we read this story twice a year: on August 6 at the Feast of the Transfiguration, and again on this Last Sunday after the Epiphany. But whether we read it in August or today, there is mystery and there is wonder, and I think all of this “cloudiness” is intentional and comes right from God. I think God wants to remind us of the mystery in our lives and as we stand on this side of the Season of Lent. God prepares us for the unexpected.

One writer (Frederick Buechner) comments on the Transfiguration, in saying, “It was Jesus of Nazareth all right… but it was also the Messiah, the Christ, in his glory. It was the holiness of the man shining through his humanness, his face so afire with it they were almost blinded.” But, as Buechner points out, we also have places in our lives where God continues to break through. “Even something like that happens to us once in a while,” he writes. “The face of a man walking his child in the park, of a woman picking peas in the garden, of sometimes even the unlikeliest person listening to a concert, say, or standing barefoot in the sand watching the waves roll in, or just having a beer at a Saturday baseball game in July. Every once and so often, something so touching, so incandescent, so alive transfigures the human face that it’s almost beyond bearing.”

It’s the miracle of God that we can be transfigured from time to time. We can be changed from one kind of person into another. We can be converted. We can become someone new, someone better, someone perhaps a little more decent, someone a little more forgiving, someone perhaps a little more holy.

Faith empowered by the Transfiguration allows us to see differently. Such faith allows us to see a bulb, but imagine a lily; to see a sinner and imagine a saint. It is the essence of transforming, transfiguring faith that we are helped to see beyond the present and gain a glimpse into the future, into that land of “if’s” and “can’s” and “maybe’s.”

I have a colleague who had a parishioner who told him that when she died, she wanted the Gospel account of the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ to be read at her funeral. When he asked her why, she said, “Because after I die, it will tell people who what I’ve become and how I’ve changed.” When he first told me this story, my colleague said that the lady was still living, but that she was in a nursing home. She had once been an avid reader, but her eyes had given out and she could no longer see to read. She had once been a great storyteller, but she had slowed down and almost had lost her gift of gab. To the eyes of those who might glance in her direction, she was slowly fading. In her very last days, when my friend visited her, he could envision her as she suggested, as she one day shall be: radiant, filled with life, filled with God.

This is a place of transfiguration and, in the Holy Eucharist, we share a meal of transfiguration. We see ordinary bread, but it becomes the Body of Christ. We see wine transfigured into Christ’s blood.

And through the mercy of God, by the power of God, we too are transfigured, little by little, day by day, Lent by Season of Lent, into being God’s faithful and holy people.

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

 

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Growing in Imperfection

angel_oakA sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23, and Matthew 5:38-48.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

We only have to walk outside the church today to hear someone describe the weather this weekend as “perfect.”  Especially as compared with the sleet and cold of last weekend, the warm air, the sunshine, and the extra holiday for Presidents’ Day all contribute to the use of that word for this time: perfect.

Usually when something is “perfect” we mean that it’s the best or highest.  When we perfect a draft of a paper or a document, it means that we try to get rid of all the mistakes, all the errors, all the misspellings and typographical mistakes. Perfection usually has to do with the ideal, with what we may agree out loud with our mouths is unobtainable, but all the while on the inside we are still measuring ourselves against some idea of perfection.

But the word used in today’s Gospel doesn’t really mean what we usually mean by “perfect.” The word used is the Greek word “teleios.” And while I usually hate to sprinkle sermons with fancy-sounding words, this is an important one.  It also finds its way into other fields, as in Philosophy, where teleology has to do with the end or the final result of something. For example, if one were to make a teleological argument for creation, one would argue that all of nature is aiming and building toward an end, supporting the idea that there’s a creator who is behind that design.

More than “perfect,” the “teleios” has to do with reaching maturity, with being whole or complete. One writer (David A. Duke) uses the image of an acorn to explain this word. A “perfect” acorn, in this biblical sense, would not be the biggest acorn on the tree, nor the prettiest, nor the meatiest (except, perhaps to a squirrel). Instead, the “perfect” acorn in the sense Jesus is using the word, would be a full-grown, leafy, majestic oak tree. The “perfect” acorn would be the acorn that has grown to full adulthood, has grown beyond its “acorn-mind,” has grown into something that is beautiful, and helpful, and useful.

Eugene Peterson’s version of the scriptures, called “The Message” makes this especially clear. He translates and paraphrases verse 48 not as “Be perfect;” but rather, Peterson puts it this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

This means that the kind of perfection Jesus encourages us towards is related to God and the generosity of God. “Be whole as God is whole, be complete as God is complete.” At the end of it all, there’s the culmination in Jesus’ saying, “Be like God. Be generous like God. Surprise other people with that generosity and amazing things will happen.”

Jesus gives examples of this in the rest of today’s Gospel.  The famous saying “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” has nothing to do with accepting abuse or acting like a doormat for others. As many commentators have observed, to be hit on the right cheek in the Roman world would have normally meant that someone used the back of their hand to smack you, so it would not only be a violent act, but also—if not more so—an insult. It meant that the person striking regarded you as lower than himself or herself, as though you were inferior—in that world, a slave, a child, a woman. Hitting back would just continue the cycle of violence. Offering the other cheek, however, is a statement: “Ok, hit me again, but this time, you have to view me as an equal.” It would change the power dynamic.  It’s a grown-up response.

And in the other example, a rich person takes a poor person to court. If they sue for your outer garment, give them your undershirt as well, so you’re standing there naked. It won’t shame you, but will shame the other person who has gone to such lengths to get money from a poor person.

And a similar thing is meant with the situation of a Roman soldier asking someone to carry his equipment. There were cultural rules and expectations for this sort of thing. So by carrying the equipment further, you would not only startle the soldier, but break the cultural code and risk his embarrassment. You would make him look foolish.

N.T. Wright suggests that these stories are a snippets, almost cartoons. Jesus is saying through these images, “imitate God.” “Be like God.” God is generous beyond what anyone would expect, so be generous with each other, be larger than your usual self.

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, holy men and woman went into the Egyptian desert looking for God and looking for themselves. Some probably went looking for what they thought might be perfection, but when confronted with their own internal demons, when confronted with the teachings and sayings of older, wiser hermits, they soon came to understand that the way to perfection is through imperfection. The way to wholeness is by admitting one’s brokenness.

There’s a great story about a desert father called Abba Moses. It seems that a brother living in community in another part of the desert had committed a fault and a kind of council was called. The brothers all wanted Abba Moses to go, but he refused. Finally, someone sent a messenger to him and said, “Abba Moses, please come. Everyone is waiting for you and for your opinion on the matter.” So Abba Moses got up and went, but he took a leaking jug filled with water, and carried it with him. The other monks came out to meet him.

They saw the leaking jug and asked, “What is this, Father!” Abba Moses looked at them and said, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the faults of another.” When they heard that, they said no more to the brother, but forgave him.

We can see through the growth and clarification of scriptures that the Bible is not perfect. Those who have tried to live a Christian life before us were not perfect. We are not perfect, but the really good news today is that we’re not called to be perfect. If anything, we’re encouraged to admit our imperfection and to be generous in allowing for the imperfections of others. This generosity leads to wholeness. It leads to maturity. Such generosity helps us to grow into something like giant, beautiful, long-lived well-loved trees.

In the final chapter of Revelation there is an image of the holy city, the New Jerusalem. There is a river of the water of life. The Lamb of God presides. And there is a tree of life, “and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

We are those leaves, imperfect, but growing, changing, developing in generosity, all under the watching care of God. Thanks be to God that we don’t have to be perfect—we just have to keep growing.

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

 

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Choosing Life

treeoflifeicon
A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 30:15-20Psalm 119:1-81 Corinthians 3:1-9, and Matthew 5:21-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In our first scripture reading from Deuteronomy, Moses is giving Israel an enormous pep-talk. After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, of wondering if God is still directing them and leading them, of worrying about what might come next, Israel is on the edge of moving into the Promised Land. I don’t know the geographic setting for the speech, but from its imagery and majesty, I wonder if it wasn’t on a hill somewhere, overlooking a great expanse of land down below, and far away. Moses speaks to the occasion in grand terms, “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous…[You will be blessed.] But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, [then] I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in [that] land….” Life and death, blessings and curses. “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord you God, obeying him and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.” Choose life.

Choosing life can be every bit as dramatic as Moses makes it sound. We choose life when we move into a new relationship. We choose life when we plan for a child. We choose life when we make a new and better decision about the direction in which we’re headed.

But choosing life also involves smaller decisions. Choosing which conversation to be a part of, choosing what to eat or drink, and even choosing how we move or exercise—all can mean choosing for life over death (in the long run).

In the Gospel today, Jesus gets down to the nitty gritty, as he points to some of the guidelines for our choosing.

Jesus is talking about our living with what is sometimes simply called “the Law,” meaning the Law of Moses—the Ten Commandments, but also, with the wisdom associated with the law and its interpretation.  This Gospel can sound like a real “laying down of the law.” It can sound like a faith that leaves out people. In fact, if we were to miss the fine points of the Gospel, most of us would probably find ourselves left out.

Jesus is re-interpreting the old law, saying, “it’s not enough just to keep the law. That probably won’t work very well, anyway. The key to living faithfully is to try to understand the things that move under the surface, the motivations and moods, the fears and fantasies that lead us off-track.”

Jesus repeats the commandment, “You shall not murder.” But then he goes further by uncovering some of the things that lead to murder. We might hear the talk of murder as extreme, until we begin to think of the anger, the frustration, the road-rage, the minor annoyances that can all too easily escalate. We might begin by harboring a grudge or nursing a resentment, and if we’re not careful, we can end up in court.

Instead, Jesus says we should work at reconciliation. He speaks of going to the temple in Jerusalem for worship, but if you remember your neighbor has something against you—stop your worship and go work things out with your neighbor beforehand. Notice how Jesus puts this—he doesn’t even say, if “YOU” have something against your neighbor, but rather, if your brother or sister has something against YOU. That changes the responsibility for reconciliation, doesn’t it?

Our tendency is to ignore the problems. Especially at church, or in any organization, we think that if we just avoid “such and such” or act a certain way or say a certain thing, then future conflicts can be avoided. But when we come to the altar, we feel the break in community and it haunts us. Here, Jesus is exaggerating his point.

If one left the temple in Jerusalem to go and be reconciled to a neighbor, it might take hours or days. You wouldn’t just leave the goat or turtledove or whatever you sacrifice might be sitting there on the temple steps. And yet, his point is made, isn’t it? Until we at least begin to pray for the person who has a problem with us, or with whom we have a problem, whatever we offer at the altar will be less than what it might be. And we won’t be free.

Prayers of confession are a beginning. A note, or phone call, or email, or conversation with another person is a beginning. A prayer for one’s enemy or one’s hard-to-get-along-with brother or sister, is a beginning, and that opens the heart to God’s grace. If we took Jesus’ words literally, we would have a whole lot of unused communion wafers every Sunday. But instead, what we do is we confess that we are broken people on the mend, and we ask for God’s grace to restore us and help us restore broken relationships.

As we move further into today’s Gospel, Jesus leads us into messy territory.  “You shall not commit adultery,” he reminds us. But then goes on to warn about lust and about all the urges and senses that, if given energy and encouragement, lead to adultery. His answer is to watch the emotions, watch the heart.

And then, Jesus talks about divorce. This is one of those topics (like abortion, like homosexuality, like many issues) that really warrants an entire series of looking closely at what scripture says, at how the culture of the time influenced the scriptures, at how faithful people through the ages have understood the movement of the Holy Spirit.  As people of faith, we continue to believe that “All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3: 16-17) but just as much (if not sometimes, more) we believe that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret scripture for our own day and our own lives.

There are times when a divorce is an unfaithful decision, made out of selfishness or spiritual immaturity. But there are also times when divorce is the ONLY faithful decision, and then one really needs all one’s faith to continue choosing life even in the midst of dark days. Choosing life in that case means reconciling as much as possible. Choosing life means praying for the other people involved, it means working on one’s issues, and choosing life after divorce or the ending of any relationship means being open to a new relationship or re-marriage when God opens that possibility.

We choose life with the attitude we adopt when we wake up in the morning. We choose life in our thoughts, in our conversations, in our willingness to apologize, in our ability to forgive, in our faith to move on in the Spirit of God, and in our thinking about what will follow us in the future.

Choosing life is not as easy as simply memorizing and repeating commandments and trying to harness every bit of energy we have in order to live by them.  There’s no joy of Christ in that sort of life.  There’s a moral slavery—exactly the kind of bondage from which Christ has come to liberate us.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, sometimes sounds a lot like Jesus as she point to the limits of phrases and platitudes.  Most recently, some of her words from a 2004 interview on PBS have found a new following in social media.  She cautions against using phrases and words to without following them out to their conclusion.  In this interview, she talks about so many of her brothers and sisters who put tremendous energy into what they belief is the cause of “pro-life.”

She said, “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”  Notice she’s not disagreeing with the people she mentions, necessarily, but she’s pushing all of us to get beyond the sound bite, the talking point, or the rallying cry.

Whether you agree with Sister Chittister, or not, notice that she is raising the same point Jesus raises.  “Choosing life” can’t be about picking and choosing which life to choose, or which aspect of life to choose.  Instead, we are either moving towards life, or we are moving towards death.

Before us is set “life and prosperity, death and adversity.” If we obey the commandments of the Lord our God, walking in his ways… then we shall live, and we shall live in such a way that our life is outlived by the one who is Love Himself.

Redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us choose life this day and for ever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

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Centering in the Mind of Christ

centeringprayerA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 112:1-10 , 1 Corinthians 2:1-16, and Matthew 5:13-20.

Listen to an informal version of this sermon, offered at the 6 PM Contemporary Eucharist, HERE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What goes on in those silent depths during the time of Centering Prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is between your innermost being and God; that place where, as St. Augustine once said, ‘God is closer to your soul than you are yourself.’ (Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, p. 6)

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

 

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Holy Foolishness

Fool and Bird 1978 by Cecil Collins 1908-1989
A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017.  The lectionary readings are Micah 6:1-8Psalm 151 Corinthians 1:18-31, and Matthew 5:1-12.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The scriptures we have heard today are tricky, I think.  They can do damage if we simply hear them, sing a few songs, say our prayers, and go on our way.  They can seem to describe an ideal faith, a faith that (at our best) we might even pray for, but in our heart of hearts, most of us know we’ll probably never attain such a faith.  And so our scripture, on a first hearing—instead of being encouraging and strengthening—can sound intimidating or even discouraging.

In the reading from Micah we hear God’s disappointment and almost heartache at having been let down by his people, God’s beloved.  In words that return to us again on Good Friday, God asks, “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery…”  And what are we to say?  But then God seems to make it even more difficult.  Saying we’re sorry won’t be enough.  Simply offering prayers of penitence or offering works of charity won’t wipe the slate clean, but instead, God says, “Here is what the Lord requires: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”  We live in a world of bosses and political leaders not chosen by the majority.  And so, it becomes very personal: How do I do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God?  It’s a question I’ll be living out for the rest of my life, but I’m not sure how close I get to being that person.

The Psalmist is honest in asking another version of this same question: “Lord, who may dwell in your tabernacle?  Who may abide upon your holy hill?”   But when the answer comes, it offers little solace. “Who can dwell in the tabernacle or abide on the holy hill? “Whoever leads a blameless life and does what is right, who speaks the truth from his heart. There is no guile upon his tongue; he does no evil to his friend; he does not heap contempt upon his neighbor.”  And so which of us is that person?  The honest answer would be to admit that there are probably very few people dwelling in the tabernacle and almost no one on God’s holy hill. One would need to be perfect and pure, holy and loving.

Lucky for us, that we are not the first people to notice the impossible demands of holiness and wonder what we are to do.  The Episcopal Church comes from the Church of England, which was born out of various impulses, but especially born against the backdrop of the Protestant Reformation.  Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and many others wrestled with this very idea:  How do we aim to be holy people while living in a sinful world, and so often falling victim to it?

One enormous goal of the Reformation was to try to break down the distinction between the very holy (or the professionally holy) and every person of faith.  Theologians reached back into scripture to remember that ALL the faithful are called “saints,” not just a few.  They renewed the biblical idea of the “priesthood of all believers,” reminding the church that everyone has a share in full participation in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and also everyone has a share in representing Christ’s sacrifice in and to the world.  If the Body of Christ lives in our world, then it lives in us.  And so, the faith of Jesus Christ is not for the morally perfect, or even the morally consistent, but is for each broken and sinful one of us.

And I think, this is where the Beatitudes come in.

Again, if we first hear these lovely phrases, “Blessed are those…” we can easily tune out, thinking that Jesus is preaching pretty words, but they have little to do with us who struggle to make it through another day in the real world.

Biblical scholars differ in how the Beatitudes should be understood.  Some suggest that Jesus was preaching in a time during which people really thought the end of the world was coming soon and that such preaching was meant to usher in the Kingdom of God.  If that were true, then it would explain the urgency and the radical nature of Jesus’ words, especially the blessings for those who endure persecution.

But other scholars suggest Jesus was laying out the basic standard for admission for any who might follow him.  If this were so, then the hurdle seems impossibly high.  Does Jesus really mean for us to seek out these situations and look for God there?

We all have times of mourning in our lives—whether we grieve the loss of a family member, a spouse, a friend, or grieve the loss of a job, or even another time.  But is Jesus really suggesting that we seek out opportunities for grief and mourning?

Some in our world experience religious persecution—too many—but again, are we supposed to be like some of the martyrs we read about who seemed to seek out punishment and persecution?

Well, I don’t think so.  I think Jesus is doing several things in this beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, the section that includes the Blessings.

One thing Jesus is doing is simply stating what is the case.  How many in this room have known tough times whether because of your own health or the poor health of someone else, and just at the darkest time, someone appeared.  God appeared.  We don’t look for those hard times, but long after, we sometimes look back and recall a kind of closeness to God that was different from the ordinary.  It was unusual, and it had within it God’s blessing.

If anyone has ever really been hungry—whether through circumstance or through a voluntary fasting—then you know that even in such a time, there sometimes appears a fullness that is different from something satisfied by food.  It’s a fullness of fellowship with others who share in your situation, it’s a fullness born of being dependent upon God.  Again, unless it’s a voluntary fast, this kind of hungering is never something we’d wish on anyone—and yet, when we reflect on it, we remember God was there, and in a strange way, so was God’s blessing.

But even more than simply pointing to the way life sometimes unfolds, I think Jesus is also inviting us to see the world through his eyes, in some ways, to see the world from upside down.

When St. Francis of Assisi began to experience God in strange, new ways, and began to feel the Spirit of deeper conversion in his heart, he sought out abandoned churches to pray in.  He is said to have spent a lot of time praying in caves.  Reflecting on the process that led Francis to see things differently, G.K. Chesterton writes,

The man who went into the cave was not the man who came out again; in that sense he was almost as different as if he were dead, as if he were a ghost or a blessed spirit. And the effects of this on his attitude towards the actual world were really as extravagant as any parallel can make them. He looked at the world as differently from other men as if he had come out of that dark hole walking on his hands.

It’s that kind of conversion, Jesus is talking about.  He’s saying that the wisdom of God looks crazy to the world, because the world’s so-called wisdom is in fact, what’s crazy.

Paul tells the Corinthians that “The message about the cross is foolishness to [most of the world] . . .,  but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Jesus was thought to be a fool by the religious leaders of his day, and his followers have been thought foolish, naïve, inefficient, and idealistic ever since.

Jesus gives us the Beatitudes as a kind of foolishness that has the wisdom of God hidden inside.  He offers this list of blessings as invitations, I think, invitations for us to listen and look for God EVERYWHERE, but especially when we’re in a rough spot.

Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .
Blessed are those who mourn . . .
Blessed are the meek, . . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . .
Blessed are the merciful, . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . .
Blessed are the peacemakers, . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . .
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

In a culture that tells us we need to make more money, build higher walls, protect ourselves at all costs, and even focus on charity “at home,”  the Beatitudes sound like complete foolishness.

As Paul says, “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block . . .[many], but to those who are the called, . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

The Church also as a long tradition of a Holy Fool—someone who seems out of their mind, totally bonkers, but serves the role of helping the faithful see deeper truth to their practice and piety.
Early on there were those who sought the silence of the desert of fourth-century Egypt. Their sayings are strange and almost Zen-like and are filled with examples of how they would confuse the sophisticated and side with the ignorant.

Later, there was St. Simeon Salos, a sixth-century monk who went into church one Sunday with a handful of nuts. At the beginning of the liturgy he started throwing them and managed to put out all of the candles. When people tried to catch him, he went up in the pulpit and began throwing nuts at all people. He dressed up in strange clothes, ate sausages in public on Good Friday and did everything he could to question tradition, convention, and propriety.

The great early Church preacher John Chrysostom places St. Paul in this category, pointing out,

Paul himself we admire on this account, not for the dead he raised, nor for the lepers he cleansed, but because he said, ‘If anyone is weak, do I not share their weakness? If anyone is made to stumble, does my heart not blaze with indignation? He nowhere boasts of his own achievements where it is not relevant; but if he is forced to, he calls himself a fool. If he ever boasts, it is of weaknesses, wrongs, of greatly sympathizing with those who are injured.

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us that the life of faith will always look foolish in the face of worldly ways.  If the church ever begins to be taken seriously, we are probably not being who we are called to be.  It doesn’t matter how large or great we look to the world. It doesn’t matter how smart or how rich or even how useful we are. It doesn’t matter how holy or how clean our hands get to be.  The key to known the risen Christ in our midst has to do with a kind of detachment, a lightness of being, with the ability not to take oneself too seriously, and the gift of being able to laugh at oneself, at the Church, and even at God.  May we be embrace holy foolishness even (if not especially) in hard times, so that we might smile quietly and inwardly as God’s  inside-out, upside-down kingdom of joy unfolds around us.

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

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Growing Together: The Rector’s Annual Report

holy-trinity-and-cross
Episcopal Churches have at least one official annual meeting to hear ministry reports and elect new officers. The Rector usually gives a report and at Holy Trinity, Father Beddingfield provides a written report but also incorporates his annual report in the sermon of the day.

Hear the sermon that includes the report HERE.

January 2017: Our Context
A cardinal rule in preaching is never to “ignore the elephant in the room.”  That is to say, if something major has happened out in the world, in the community, or the church family, the wise preacher will address it.  She will listen and pray and try to help a parish understand where God is in such an event or occasion. This leads to a particular challenge for me today.

Since this is the day of our annual meeting and we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that meeting, I had planned to offer my annual report in the form of the sermon.  But this has been an unusual week. A new president has been inaugurated, and the fears for many of us have only increased.  There may be a few who are cautiously optimistic by new economic opportunities or the “hand grenade” approach to government, but most I have spoken with are increasingly anxious.  And then yesterday brought different emotion.  The Women’s March here and around the world brought new energy and community to a number from our parish as we sought to remind the new administration and congress about some of the values most important to women, and about human rights.   Wherever you may be in the political or cultural spectrum— chances are—this week has been challenging in some way.

And so, where is God in all of this?  And what might it possibly have to do with the annual meeting of this particular parish?

Well, I want to begin trying to answer that question by quoting a passage from a book I keep revisiting.  The book is called After Virtue, and it’s by a Scottish moral philosopher named Alistair MacIntyre.  Even though the book is pretty dense (for me, anyway), there’s a classic section near the end that, I think, helps us think about what God might be doing in these confusing times.  MacIntyre writes

…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.  (After Virtue, p. 286)

MacIntyre is, of course, referring to the idea that St. Benedict in the late 6th century, and his founding of Western monasticism really saved civilization, especially through the rough times of barbarians and marauders, extreme violence and warfare.  The monks preserved and taught agriculture, animal husbandry, bee-keeping, and metallurgy.  Perhaps more than anything, the Benedictine monks and nuns copied manuscripts and furthered the development of arts, literature, and music.

MacIntyre’s assessment of our time as a “New Dark Ages” is characterized by an arbitrary understanding of truth, the myth of the individual as the center of the universe, violence at home and abroad, and once again, talk of cutting programs in education and culture.  We’re waiting for a new Benedict, MacIntyre says, but it will be different from the last.  This “new Benedict,” God’s method of salvation, will have to do with “local forms of community within which civility and the intellection and moral life can be sustained.” And this brings us to the Church of the Holy Trinity, what we’ve been doing, what I think God is doing in our midst.

Yes, the world is changing around us.  Demographics work against a typical Episcopal Church, we are no different.  We have no idea what the new subway and continued gentrification will mean for Yorkville, and cultural patterns continue to lead people to understand themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (as though the two can really be separated—but that’s another sermon.)

And yet, we’ve been living, working, and praying as a Christian community rooted in this place for 118 years.  And especially in the last year, we’ve worked hard at building community, taking stock, growing in God, and saying our prayers while inviting others in. We are building a good foundation for the future, and will get through the New Dark Ages together, with faith rooted in Jesus Christ.

Building Community
Much of my first full year among you has been spent trying to get to know you, trying to figure out who is a part of the community and who’s around the edge.  Some of this can be learned through the parish database, and we’ve put new emphasis on keeping up to date with records and contacts and doing what restaurateur Danny Meyer calls “collecting and connecting the dots”—in order to strengthen relationships.

A part of this is communication.  We’ve used more signs, more postcards, and more postings on social media.  Beginning with the First Sunday in Lent of 2016, we began the weekly newsletter and insert, calling it News from 316.  That title is meant to name to address of the church as well as remind us of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Most weeks, I write something as a cover article—about our worship, about a saint’s day who is celebrated, or about a theological or pastoral issue.  We send it out by email every Thursday, and while I want to change that method of emailing, to help it get by more spam-protection software and be easier to open and read, I’m grateful to those of you who read it.  Between the News from 316 and our website, one can generally get a good sense of what’s going on.  We need to do more, and if you have some ideas or talents in social media and can volunteer, please let me know.

I’ve tried to build community through the programs offered by Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center: especially the Tuesday senior lunch and volunteering in the men’s shelter. I don’t get to the Saturday dinner as much as I’d like but try to encourage around the edges, as well. While I’m officially the chair of the both the Triangle Theatre and HTNC, I hope to continue to add energy, leadership, and vision, for these enormous mission arms of our parish.  Since the opening of St. Christopher’s House in 1897, mission has been the heart of this parish and continues to be through HTNC and our partners at Health Advocates for Older People and Search and Care.  Several hundred people are reached, served, and befriended by these programs each week.

Erwin and I love living at the rectory, and we have enjoyed the many receptions, meetings, fund raisers, and events we’ve hosted, and will continue to do that in the future.

Many in our community feel connected to this parish.  In the past, an annual MayFair has been a big part of this.  In 2017, I’m encouraging folks to really think about how we can use our energy and resources to show of our church, let people sample a bit of our personality, but do so within the means of our time, talent, and treasure.

Taking Stock
Much of my approach to the last year has involved a kind of “taking stock.”  I continue to learn the building and its needs and have spent a lot of time navigating lapsed inspections, expired certificates, and unaddressed violations with the City of New York.  We have caught up with some of these, but have more to do in 2017.  We continue to be hopeful about an arrangement with the new owner of the Rhinelander Building next door in which we will lose nothing but gain needed work on the rectory gutters, flashing, and pointing; and we are slowly looking at how to structure work of renovation, repair, and renewal in various parts of the building.

Some of “taking stock” includes our numbers.  Holy Trinity has not had a financial audit since 2010.  We began one last fall, and we will be completing that very soon.  In preparation for that, I’m also happy to say that we now have leases for every person or group who rents space in our building—but this is new, and some of the leases are outdated.  While the seven apartments we have provide a small but stead income, renting to church employees in the diocese (thereby effectively subsidizing the salaries of other churches’ clergy is not faithful stewardship for us in the long run.)

This year we began to develop a plan for addressing some of the issues around cleaning, repair, and maintenance, but then realized that our bookkeeping system needed more attention and cleanup than we had thought.  We parted ways with our part-time bookkeeper, and hired an excellent bookkeeping consultant who is getting things organized, bringing our various bookkeeping systems into alignment, and helping us to hire a basic, part-time bookkeeper who will be able to maintain records and run the business side of our ministries. Maria Wainwright, our bookkeeping consultant, will train the new person and then be “on call” should we ever need her to help with a question or a specific project.  I apologize to anyone who contributed in 2016 and did not always receive timely statements or answers to your financial questions.  Please know that this will not happen again.  I’m enormously encouraged by the new work being done on our systems, and confident we’ll be squared away before long.

I’m grateful to the Budget and Finance Committee, the Buildings and Grounds Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Vestry, and all our volunteers who give so generously of time and talent.  Even though we have some of the busiest people in the world in our parish, you commit and follow through, and it’s a joy to serve as your rector. Especially as we’ve gone through three bookeepers in the last year, Erlinda Brent has provided consistency and care in that area, as she has in so many others.  She continues to do the work of three or four people, and I’m grateful for all she does.

An enormous part of “taking stock” has only just begun, and that involves our making new friends in the neighborhood and city, exploring contacts, and really looking and praying about the use of our buildings.  Which spaces do we insist on using for our ministry and programs?  Which spaces might we share more fully?  And are there spaces we could lease or invite a new partner to develop?  In the coming year, I’ll be developing a small task force to look at some of these questions and so I welcome your prayers and ideas for our being more faithful stewards of all God has entrusted us.

Growing in God
Last summer, we offered a monthly Christian Education class, “Prayer & Pie,” and had 20 to 30 people each time. In the fall, Lindsay Mullinax and Dawn Persaud offered Christian Education for children each Sunday morning in the Cloister Chapel, and we also renewed regular Sunday morning Adult Christian Education.  This was made possible by shifting our later morning service to 11 AM, and I’m grateful for the parish’s flexibility in making the transition.  Our topics last year included a Bible Study of the Gospels, the lives of St. Francis and St. Clare (on St. Francis Sunday), a four-week course on What It Means to be an Episcopalian, a three-week discussion of the book, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and an Advent series on canticles.  I know Sunday morning is not the best time for some people to come for forty-five minutes and learn about the Christian faith, but since there is not magic time I’m aware of, this is the time we have.  I’m grateful to those who have made this a priority and joined us and look forward to continuing to offer a rich and varied range of options.

Last year also renewed the Holy Trinity tradition of seasonal Quiet Days, or mini-retreats.  In Lent, we offered one on praying with beads (rosaries and such) and in Advent, we teamed up with the Church of the Epiphany to offer a day on the medieval saint Hildegard of Bingen.

Saying our Prayers
Worship is at the heart of what we do and who we are at Holy Trinity.  Monday through Thursday of each week, we offer Morning Prayer and have built a small and faithful community.  In the fall, we also began offering Evening Prayer on Wednesdays, followed by a Eucharist with particular prayers for healing.  Again, we’ve developed a small but faithful community and look forward to growing that service this spring, as the light allows people to do more in the evenings.

I feel enormously blessed to work with Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, our professional choir members, volunteers and volunteer musicians.  Our music program at 11 and 6 is one of the best-kept secrets in New York—but it’s a secret I hope to share more and more.  Worship is a joy at Holy Trinity and each of our services, in its own way, nurtures members and welcomes newcomers into what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness.”  Our worship is made possible by several small teams of people—ushers, altar guild members, lectors, and acolytes.  Enormous thanks goes to the heads of each of those groups and all the people who share their time with us.

Our Context and the Gospel
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls Simon Peter and Andrew, and says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”  We, too are called to “fish for people.” We’re called to use whatever skills, abilities, or gifts we might have in order to help others know the love of God through Jesus Christ.  We may be called to teach for people, to cook for people, to build for people, or to listen for people.  We might be called to network, to raise money, to teach, or repair for others. Whatever it is we may do, in meeting Christ, we have the potential for our everyday doings to become ministry and mission.

There’s an old preacher’s story about the devil and his generals who try to mount a new battle on Christians.  They want to weaken and kill the Church.  And so, the generals all get together and the first one has an idea.  “What if we try to convince them that there really is no God?”  “No,” says the devil. “That will never work. Too many Christians already have a strong sense of God, we need to come up with something else.”  The next general stands up and says, “I have it.  Let’s convince them that there really is no difference between good and evil, between right and wrong.”  But the devil shakes his head again.  “No,” he says, “too many Christians already have a deeply ingrained sense of what’s right and wrong. We’ll have to think of something else.”  Finally, the third general steps forward. “Sir,” he says, “my idea is a little subtle, but I wonder if we might encourage them to continue believing in God, even encourage them to keep distinguishing between good and evil, but we simply suggest to them that there’s no hurry in any of this.  There’s no need to rush, no need to worry, no sense of urgency.”

We can look at the Church (as, perhaps with the recent presidential election in our country) and realize that apathy, indifference, and the belief that “someone will do it” take their toll.

There is an urgency to “fish for people,” to welcome and embrace—not because of the financial or volunteer demands of the parish (though we have both of those), but because people need Jesus Christ.  And we need each other in a new kind of Christian community in order to navigate the days ahead. Too many people are living in spiritual dark ages and don’t even realize it—they just keep searching in circles, going through people, jobs, experiences, alcohol or drugs… you name it.  They don’t have to worry about a physical, fiery hell in the afterlife—they’re already living in one.  We offer an alternative.  We offer community and home.  We offer the Body and Blood of Christ to sustain us in this life and to empower us for the next.

I thank you for all you do and all you are.  I thank you for helping to make 2016 such a bright year, and for the privilege and joy of serving as your rector.  May God bless us with light in the dark and the abiding, life-giving presence of Christ in this new year.

 

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Called, Gifted, and Sent

san_damiano_detail

Detail from the San Damiano Cross

A homily for Friday offered in the context of a retreat given on St. Clare of Assisi at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ. The appointed Gospel is Mark 3:13-19.

Alasdair MacIntyre is a Scottish professor of moral and political ethics whose 1981 book I mentioned the other morning.   The book called After Virtue is often cited as one of the most important ethical works of the 20th century.  Though it’s difficult to read, MacIntyre argues that morality has become an individual pursuit, left to the feelings of any particular person—while a real moral framework can only be created and sustained in community.  Some see in his work a kind of “politics of self-defense” for local communities and groups who hope to survive the forces of capitalism and the other enormous cultural shifts taking place around us. In a classic section that I keep rereading, MacIntyre says this:

…[F]or some time now we too have reached a turning point. What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict.  (After Virtue, p. 286)

While many find MacIntyre’s statement disconcerting and pessimistic, I actually find it hopeful.  I find it hopeful because I know St. Benedict and others like him and I know communities—like this one and many others—who have been building and sustaining “local forms of community” for generations.  While we sometimes worry that we’re going extinct or can’t see what the next chapter of faith might look like, we at least have the capacity and the tools to go forward, creating a new world, and (in our case) living into the Kingdom of God.

In our first reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, we’re reminded that our God is a God of covenant relationship.  God wants to gather us together in a community that is accountable to God.  In our Gospel, we see God in Jesus gathering up a new community.

Jesus calls the twelve apostles.  Then he calls gifts out of them.  And then he sends them out to spread the message of God’s love, all the while, building new communities so that God’s love in Christ can be “gazed upon, considered, contemplated, and imitated,” as Clare might remind us.

Though it’s natural to question the institutional ways in which we maintain community—whether that is a religious order or a parish—but we, too, have been called just as powerfully as those first disciples.

Jesus calls us by name.  We have heard that calling and we have responded. But we should never forget that he continues to call us to new ministries, new perspectives, and new ways of living out that original calling.

Jesus calls particular skills and gifts out of us.  But again, with the Spirit’s work within us, Jesus keeps calling new gifts out of us, if we’re open and alert.  I could not have told you years ago that I would feel deeply and clearly called to work on my Spanish and really get it conversational when I’m in my 50’s.  I also could not have told you that my old construction skills and instincts developed through college summers would help me manage and maintain five church buildings from 1899.  Who knows what God is calling each of us to learn and grow and accomplish next?

And finally, just as we have responded to Christ’s call and embraced the gifts for ministry he has given, he has sent us and continues to send us.  Sometimes the mission field is across the room and sometimes it’s across the globe.  But we have what we need in our initial calling, in the gifts given and grown, and in the abiding power of Christian community.

Especially on this Inauguration Day filled with so much division and rancor, and as we prepare to be faithful people in the days ahead, may we remember that we are called, but we are also called into community, but we are also called as a community to pick up our cross daily.  And as we discussed this morning, this means allowing space for those we disagree with.  Miroslav Volf reminds us, that in the Cross, “We who have been embraced by the outstretched arms of the crucified God must open our arms even for the enemies—to make space in ourselves for them and invite them in—so that together we may rejoice in the eternal embrace of the triune God.” (Exclusion and Embrace, p. 47, in Ilia Delio’s Clare of Assisi: A Heart Full of Love)

May God deepen our several callings, strengthen our vocations, and fill us with the Holy Spirit to be faithful until we are joined with God.

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

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