A Cross of Humility

Cross steelA sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 16, 2018.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 116:1-8James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38

Listen to the sermon HERE

On Friday, September 14, churches around the world celebrated what is known as “Holy Cross Day.” The themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.” As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.

But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.

The practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.

To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.

Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

This careful, thoughtful, discriminating tongue is also what James is encouraging in our second reading today. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”

If we take up our cross, if we participate in the life of Christ as he calls us in this world, then it’s going to affect what we say and how we speak. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.

Taking up our cross involves loving. The whole Letter of James is really a love letter, trying to help people understand that taking up one’s cross is not only an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. But it’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.

Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about having the humility to follow God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a  second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. But we identify it, and we cling to it. “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

But over time I become comfortable carrying it, and decide that others should carry crosses just like mine. It becomes less my cross than my cause, my effort and my glory.

In today’s Gospel, Saint Peter is confused by Jesus for exactly this reason. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. The plan was in the mind and heart of God, unfolding just as surely and timely as anything else with God unfolds. The way forward was to be a way of humility, of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.

Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such.  It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown.  The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better.  Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.

On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

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

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An Inside Job

Pentecost JesusA sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 2, 2018. The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9Psalm 15James 1:17-27, and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s a great cooking story about a couple who have just gotten together and one person notices his spouse carefully cutting both ends of a ham before putting in the roaster and placing the ham in the oven. “Why do you cut the ends off?” asks the husband. “Because that’s the way mom always did it,” replies the other.

At the next holiday, there’s a family gathering and the mom is in the kitchen. They notice she cuts both ends off the ham, puts it in the pan, and the pan in the oven. “Mom,” they ask, “Why did we always cut the ends off the ham before cooking it?” The mother looks at them and explains, because that’s the way your grandmother did it. Why don’t you ask her? She’s on the back porch.

And so out the couple go, and they ask grandma about cutting both ends of the ham. Grandma bursts out laughing, and says, “Forty years ago, I did cut off both ends of the ham. I only had one roasting pan, and it was never big enough. That’s the only reason I did it and stopped doing that years ago!”

Sometimes practices, rules, and regulations begin for very good reasons. But then sometimes, they’ve lost all connection to reality. And sometimes, those rules become the most important thing. Sometimes the rules might be in the kitchen. Sometimes around work, and sometimes around church and the way we worship.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to any who would be tempted to place a higher value on rule-following than community.

Jesus is dealing with the dedicated religious of his day, the Pharisees and the scribes. The scribes preserved the Law of God. Form was their business, and had it not been for the scribes, much of the tradition would have been lost. The scribes were the memory, the archives, and the tradition of the Jewish faith.

The Pharisees were the seriously religious of Jesus’ day. Though they are harshly criticized for often failing to see what God was doing in their midst, they were nonetheless the people who cared, the people who were most concerned with God, the people who most tried to follow God.

The Pharisees and scribes see Jesus and his followers and they don’t approve. From their point of view, those who follow Jesus are taking religious shortcuts. They don’t seem to value the tradition, or even to be acquainted with the tradition in some cases. And the particular point in today’s Gospel revolves around these religious people noticing that Jesus’ followers don’t wash their hands properly before eating.

Mark, the Gospel-writer, gives us a little more background of these folks. He says “The Pharisees do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.”

But when the Pharisees ask Jesus about this, Jesus sees to the very heart of the matter. Jesus quotes Isaiah to them, suggesting that they’ve strayed from the commandments of God (which are really very simple) and they’ve gotten all clouded up with rules and traditions made by humans. And then Jesus delivers his zinger: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come ….” and then Jesus goes on to list the whole host of evil things that might come out of us.

Are there ways in which our rules, our order, our ritual, our procedures ever create barriers between people and God? That’s the real question that Jesus puts to us. Are there things we need to be free of, in order to follow God more closely, more directly? Are there ways in which we may be called to “loosen up” spiritually, so that we might see or hear or know God, as God is trying to meet us?

It’s not what we put into our bodies that gets us into trouble: it’s not what we eat and drink, or how we say our prayers, or whether we kneel or stand. It’s what comes out. Our words—our words to strangers, our words to family, our words to other people of faith. Our actions matter, as the epistle from James made clear earlier: “…[B]e doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

But it’s easy to get caught up in the outward form of religion and forget the substance.

Some years ago, after I was first ordained, I was set to celebrate the Holy Eucharist at a weekday service at my church. Ten or fifteen people, at most, would usually be at that service. But I also knew that the Rev. Dr. Louis Weil, probably the preeminent liturgical (or worship) scholar in the Episcopal Church, was visiting. When I came out to begin the service, there he was: second row on the right. I was self-conscious about everything. I worried about how I stood, was my voice right? My pacing? Was my orans (the use of my arms in prayer) too narrow like a field goal post, or too wide like a group hug? On and on, I went, worrying about the details. It’s a testimony to a loving God that I was able to get through the service and the bottom line was reached: everyone fed, and no one got hurt.

After the service, I greeted the handful of people and then I went over to Father Weil. I asked him if he noticed anything about my celebration that stood out or was wrong. Did I forget anything? Was I too fast or too slow, too deadpan or too dramatic? Did I do anything annoying or distracting? Father Weil looked at me with the most incredulous expression. “Oh John,” he said, “I have no idea. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was here to worship.”

Whether he was telling me the absolute truth or not (and he probably was), I got the point.  When our faith only follows forms and rules and conventions, we’re like those cutout figures—less than our reality, less than our potential, shadows of the people God has created us to be.

It’s easy to get caught up in all the details—for the Pharisees it might have been the washing of hands in just the right way, at just the right time. For us– who knows what it might be?

Today’s Gospel speaks to newcomers and to long-term church folks.  To newcomers, Jesus is saying, don’t get caught up on the details, for now. Focus on what’s inside—following Jesus, loving God, being made new by the Holy Spirit.  Don’t get too caught up on whether you cross yourself at the right time or kneel in just the right spot.

To those of us who have been around for a while, Jesus asks us to think about our piety and religious practices.  Do our outward actions flow from our inward experiences and beliefs?  Are we being called to change anything, or re-evaluate, or perhaps adopt some new spiritual practice?

It is from within that bad things can come. And it is from within that all the mercy, grace, forgiveness, insight, wisdom, and love of God-working-through-us can come.

There’s an ancient prayer from Salisbury, England that has been used for centuries to ask for God’s help, for God to integrate us in the fullness of his image.  May it be our prayer as we seek to integrate what’s inside with what’s outside:

May God be in our head, and in our understanding.
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our heart, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

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

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Clothed by God

JulianA sermon offered on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 26, 2018.  The scripture readings are Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18Psalm 34:15-22Ephesians 6:10-20, and John 6:56-69

Listen to the sermon HERE

Gareth Southgate has become known for wearing a waistcoat.  He’s the manager (or coach) of the England National Soccer team, made famous in the recent World Cup.

What do we “put on” that makes us feel strong? What do we put on ourselves that helps us fight the things we fear? Do we put on a particular label? A lucky shirt? Makeup? Jewelry? Does wearing a cross help us when we’re afraid. Do we carry a talisman or a lucky object?

Most of us probably have something. The tie we wore when we got the big job. The shoes we wore when we fell in love. The ring, the blouse, the t-shirt… you name it. In today’s second reading, St. Paul suggests a whole wardrobe, but he’s not really talking about physical, material things. Just the opposite, in fact. Paul is suggesting that when we’re afraid, when we’re insecure, when we’re not sure we’ve got the strength or the confidence to get through the morning (much less the day), that there’s an entire closetfull of things at our disposal that well keep us safe. In fact, they will save us.

“Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul says. The physical things we fear, though they might be scary, are not really the things to fear at all, Paul says. Rather, it’s the spiritual things that can level us, that can bring us down the deepest, and that can even kill us. And then Paul goes on to talk about these various things we might do well to put on, or at least to try on.

Put a belt of truth around your waist. The waist is at our center. What if truth were really at the center of all that we are, and all that we do? There would be no fudging, no little white lies—instead, I guess we’d simply keep silent, rather than telling a lie.

Put on a breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate would cover the heart. Paul imagines our hearts to be covered with righteousness. “Righteousness” comes from an Old English word, “right-wise”—to be both virtuous and wise, to be right wise. To live from the heart, remembering that the heart and the head are in separable.

Paul says that for shoes, whatever makes us ready to proclaim a “gospel of peace” will do. He’s talking about our having a good foundation, a foundation that allows for peace, for us to talk about peace, to work for peace among other people, and to encourage peace in what we say, in where we go, and in what we do. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

Faith, itself, Paul says, is like a shield. It protects us from all kinds of things. Even if our faith is weak, it’s a shield. Even if our faith is confused, even if it’s conflicted, when arrows from the evil one come toward us.

Senator John McCain died last night and for most of his life was a faithful Episcopalian. He knew so much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart that when he was captured as a prisoner of war, he could recite whole sections, psalms, and prayers. He could lead religious services in prison that helped sustain himself and helped sustain others.

God gives us a helping hand and our shield of faith is enough. Whatever faith we have is enough, and God works with that, and God honors that.

Any faith, any faith at all, becomes what Paul puts so dramatically as the “shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” A “helmet of salvation” and a “sword of the Spirit” might sound vague, like they are accessories that we really don’t need. Except that the sword of the spirit is the Holy Scriptures, and the Holy Scripture is the way in which we come to understand salvation—salvation being, God’s plan from the beginning of time, to save humankind from itself.

So, here, St. Paul gives us an inventory of a kind of holy closet … The things we can use to protect us, to strengthen us, to keep us strong and faithful against any foe.

Julian of Norwich had a vision of God, and in reflecting upon it, she writes “God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.” (Showings, Chapter 5, Long Version)

Clothes do, perhaps, make the person. But not the physical clothes—it’s the spiritual ones that count. And the best thing is that we don’t have to worry about back-to-school sales, or being up on the new fall fashions—God provides us with the means to be clothed in exactly what we need.

In the Gospel, the disciples say to Jesus, “This is a hard saying.” But Jesus suggests they clothe themselves in his spirit, in his light, in his love.

God gives us armor: a belt of truth, a breastplate of righteousness, peace-making shoes, a shield of faith, a helmet of salvation and sword of the Spirit— and all of them are custom-tailored to be exactly what you and I need. God does not give us a size that’s too big, or too small, but always knows what will be right. It is for us to step into that which God provides.

As Julian says, “God [himself] is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love.”

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

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Tired, Hungry, and Needy

breadA sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 19, 2018.  The scripture readings are Proverbs 9:1-6Psalm 34:9-14Ephesians 5:15-20, and John 6:51-58.

Listen to the sermon HERE

Why is it that food just tastes better sometimes?

After a long day at the beach, you’re sunburned and tired, but no matter what you put on a grill, it tastes better. Or in other seasons (that will be here before we know it)—cleaning out or volunteering somewhere on a chilly or cold day and the soup, the lasagna, the pizza from around the corner— whatever it is, just tastes better.

The food tastes better, I think, for at least three reasons.  It tastes better because we come tired, because we come hungry, and because we come in need.

And it’s those same three conditions that draw us to another table, to another meal, to a meal in which the superlative has less to do with taste than it does with substance.  At this meal, we receive life.  We gain the life of Christ, now and eternally.

Sometimes we come to Holy Communion tired, tired from what the great prayer calls those things “we have done, and those things we have left undone.”  Sometimes, we approach the altar with a feeling of having had a good day, or a good week.  We’ve done our best.  We’ve thought of other people. We’ve shared.  We’ve offered help.

And so we approach the altar tired, needing a little renewal, a little push to keep on.  But other times, we’ve maybe fallen down a lot during the week.  Things have not gone well—we have mis-spoken and we have mis-stepped.  Maybe we’ve even stepped on others.  And so, again, we’re tired, we’re beaten down, and so we almost limp through the liturgy and reach for the table.  We come tired.

I’m tired, this week, of more horrible news of abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, and the continued reliance upon a system that encourages power, greed, and silence. At such times, it’s tempting to champion the Episcopal Church—catholic in worship and theology, but reformed with lay leadership, transparency, shared power, and publicly aired dirty laundry. And yet, we all suffer. Victims look for healing.  And those who are already skeptical of history faith point to the latest news of why they should simply spend a Sunday morning with yoga, the park, and brunch with friends.  [Those interested in Holy Trinity’s Policies and other resources can look here.]

I get tired—we all do—of trying to say to a cynical, over-informed but under-read world, “But our church is different.”  And so, I bring my weariness to the table.

We come hungry for various reasons.  Often we “travail and are heavy-laden,” and we look for refreshment.  We’ve eaten too much of the junk food of the world, and so we look for nourishment, for things are taste like what they are, rather than what chemicals or preservatives have made us imagine.  Some starve for friendship, for healing, for work, for purpose.

Writing about food has grown over the last last twenty or thirty years, and with it the word, “umami” has come into our vocabulary from Japanese to describe a kind of “fifth taste,” beyond sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.  It’s a pleasant, savory kind of taste.  It’s brothy, and meaty, and mouth-watering. As the Umami Information Center says, it is “subtle and blends well with other tastes to expand and round out flavors, most people don’t recognize umami when they encounter it, but it plays an important role making food taste delicious.

I think the Bread of Heaven has a kind of spiritual “umami,” to it.  It fulfills a kind of hunger, offers its own taste, and while it satisfies, it also encourages us to want more, to ask for me, to live for more.

This brings us to the third condition we bring that makes food so good.  If we’re honest, we bring some kind of need to the table.

I say, “if we’re honest,” we acknowledge our neediness.  Sometimes we come already full—full of ourselves, full of resentments (against God or other people), full of thinking, or full of emotion.  Sometimes we can come to the altar full of expectations, expectations for which there is not god big enough to meet.

But Christ feeds us most when we approach his table empty-handed, in the humility of saying simply, “I need.”  How we fill in the blank almost doesn’t matter as much as our saying—our praying—our need.  While our culture frowns on neediness of any kind, here at church, in worship, at this Holy Table, we have a place to bring our need—all of it, whether petty or seemingly insignificant, or overwhelming and larger than life itself.

The Gospel today tells us about a meal, and the first two readings work almost as invitations to the meal.  They speak of wisdom, but it’s a homey, kitchen-table kind of wisdom.  In Proverbs, Lady Wisdom has dinner ready.  “Turn in here,” she says, “ lay aside all the baggage you’ve got.  Leave all that outside, and come in, sit down, eat and enjoy.”

The Reading from Ephesians continues with the added advice of how to arrive at the feast, what to bring, and how to act.  Don’t be foolish. Don’t drink too much.  “Make the most of the time.”  In other words, leave regrets and expectations behind.  Don’t try to run away from the moment, but live—live fully, live woken up, live NOW, here.

One of favorite newer hymns in our hymnal is one that sings of this message of Ephesians:

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,

Jesus says, “I am the living bread.”  The people of his day worried and wondered what it meant to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  The apostle Paul writes that some misunderstood this to the point that there were rumors about the Christians being cannibals.  The Church ever since has tried to place Holy Communion on the spectrum between completely symbolic or completely literal.

St. Augustine put it well when he wrote, “That which you see is bread and the cup, which even your eyes declare to you; but as to that in which your faith demands instruction, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup is the blood of Christ … these things are called sacraments for this reason, that in them one thing is seen, another thing is understood.”  At its most faithful, I think, the Church has lived somewhere in-between, in the middle, in place of faith, a place of “spiritual umami,” the place in which the Real Presence of Christ is Now—not yesterday, not this afternoon, but NOW.

I’ve invited you to think about times when food tasted especially good—after a long day of work or an exhausting project.  But just imagine, for a moment, the feast that awaits us after a life well-lived.  Imagine the table, the tastes, the company, the eternal goodness of it all when we meet God face to face with totality of tiredness, a life of hungering for the good, and a need only for God, who greets with a smile, saying, “Life forever begins now.  Bon appetit.”

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

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Raised Up

Raising of LazarusA sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 12, 2018. The scripture readings are 1 Kings 19:4-8Psalm 34:1-8Ephesians 4:25-5:2, and John 6:35, 41-51.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel and the one for next week put a hymn in my head that I can’t get out very easily.   I bet you’ve heard it or sung it somewhere.  It’s often sung at youth conferences and is popular at funerals. The hymn, “I am the bread of life” is not the easiest to sing—the words don’t match the notes in the same way from stanza to stanza, and so, a lot of us tend to sort of mumble as we sing the verses.  But things clear up when we get to the refrain.  Everyone sings.  Whether they are on pitch or off, whether they sing well or not so well, almost everyone does their part with the words that sing, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Christians often have made a big deal over the raising up of Jesus.  In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has been used as a test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ.  But in today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that the point of his rising is to raise up others, to raise up you and me, that we might walk tall and strong in this life, and that we might join one another in the next.

Throughout the Gospel stories, the Greek word that we translate as “rise up” [anistemi] occurs again and again.   The man who is healed of a withered hand, the daughter of Jairus, the prodigal son rises up and goes to see his father.

Jesus also uses the same word when he is talking with the disciples about the Son of Man, this special one of God foretold in scripture. Jesus says that the Son of Man will be delivered over to the people, mocked, spitefully treated and spit upon, and they will put him to death; but on the third day he will rise again.

In this life Jesus raises up.  He raises up the sick and the wounded.  He raises up those who are brought down low by others.  His mother Mary sings of this power before his birth, prophesying what will be as she affirms, “He has lifted up the lowly.”

And he lifts up still and he empowers us to be his hands in the word to help lift up others.

Christ lifts us up in this life, but he also lifts us up into the next.  We believe that through his death on the cross and his descent into hell, he has gone through the very worst of what evil and death can do.  No matter how lonely, no matter how painful, no matter how horrible—Jesus has endured it.  And he has overcome it.  With his resurrection, we are given the power through God to make it through anything death can deal us.  With the power of Christ, we too rise to new life, we rise to everlasting life.

Just as wheat rises to become bread, bread rises in us to make us become more like God.  Each time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we are nourished by Christ.  We are fed by his body and blood and made strong and made faithful.

At the beginning of the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, the celebrant bids us, “Lift up your hearts.”  And we respond, “We lift them up unto the Lord.”  This is a statement of faith, in a way.  It is a statement of faith that even in our prayers, as we celebrate the sacrament in this life; we are made one with God.  We are united with Christ through his body and are lifted up into the presence of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

The Eastern theologian and catechist, [7th century Byzantine] Maximus the Confessor worked hard to help people understand and believe basic Christian beliefs.  Underlying all of his teaching is his belief that it is God’s intention to raise up all things and to bring them to a new and extraordinary place in the presence and the heart of God.  Maximus wrote, “…it is clear that He who became man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine nature, and will raise it up for His own sake to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.”(page 178 PHILOKALIA Volume II) According to Maximus, God is working to bring all thing together and to raise them up.

In our Old Testament lesson, we read about the prophet Elijah, who was at the point of giving up.  He’s been doing his best, but it isn’t paying off.  Because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, if after his head.  No place is safe. People aren’t listening, and so Elijah feels sorry for himself.  He prays to God to take away his life.  And then he goes and sits under a tree and falls asleep.  An angel wakes him up and something awakens deep within Elijah.  Elijah is told, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.”  Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger—whether that messenger was an angel with wings who hovered and flew or an angel that looked a lot like a thoughtful lady from down the street.

That’s the way it works so often.  We are raised up by one another—when we feel the prayers of other people, they sometimes feel like we’re being given a boost, and we are raised up.

When someone offers us a hand or a kind word, and we though nobody noticed how down we were, we are raised up.  When someone offers another way of seeing a quandary or tackling a problem, we are raised up.

God’s raising work can surprise us, sometimes, even when we’re praying for it. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, remembers an occasion when this happened for him. He and his wife were visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Goma. They were at a refugee camp where there were some 25,000 people, sheltered on volcanic rock, with almost no food. Welby went into a hot tent with disabled children who’d been abandoned. They lay, basically dying, on filthy mattresses, while overstretched doctors tried to make them comfortable. In the midst of that, having sat with an elderly woman, who was blind, hungry, and had lost her entire family, the Bishop came over to Welby, and said, “Say something to encourage them.” Archbishop Welby recalls,

I did what I’m afraid I tend to do when I can’t think of anything to say I talk for a while to see if I’ve got any ideas . . . I started off by saying: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” And I was then going on to say something about bringing practical help or something […… but] the crowd started clapping and cheering. [They went on clapping and cheering.]

The Archbishop goes on to reflect, “The gospel is good news to the poor in and of itself. Yes, it changes society, yes, it transforms our existence, yes, it does all that. But it is in and of itself, by itself an end in itself, not a means to an end. It is good news for the poor.” (From “Prayer and Community as the First Priority,” Religious Life and Renewal: Exploring Roots and Shoots, The Archbishop’s Day Conference at Lambeth Palace, Friday 28th March 2014).

Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, we can sometimes take the Gospel a little bit for granted and forget its power to lift others up. Our bearing witness to the Gospel (whether with words or in action) can lift up others. Maybe it’s through conversation, through prayer, through political action, or charity; maybe it’s a stranger, a family member, a friend, or a fellow parishioner—the opportunities abound for us to participate in God’s work of raising up all of creation, and gathering us to himself. As hard as we might work at it, the Archbishop’s story reminds us that it is the liberating power of Christ to resurrect that saves us all.

Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

Let us give thanks to God that we have been raised up; we are being raised up, and that on the last day, we will be raised up into the full love of God.

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

 

 

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Bread that Sustains

bread2A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 5, 2018.  The scripture readings are Exodus 16:2-4,9-15Psalm 78:23-29Ephesians 4:1-16, and John 6:24-35

Listen to the sermon HERE

Last week, we heard about Jesus using limited resources to feed thousands.  This week, our scripture from the Gospel of John continues just after the feeding of the thousands.  Some of those who witnessed the feeding of the thousands have crossed the lake in their boat, and when they get to the other side they seem surprised to see Jesus.  They ask him how he got there and where he came from.  But Jesus reads their hearts and says, “You ask about me not because you really want to know but because you’re still thinking about the food for the thousands we just ate.”  “And yet,” Jesus says, “you still want more.”

We all probably know someone who can never be satisfied, but always wants more. Sometimes the appetites are external—the desire for more money, more clothes, more food, more drink, more stuff.  But often these mask internal appetites that are sometimes the very hardest to satisfy—the desire for acceptance (self-acceptance or the approval of others), the desire for a purpose, a vocation, or a cause. There’s the desire for excitement, or challenge, or change—or its opposite: the desire for peace, for calm, for silence.  There’s the desire for love.

Those who experience any healing from addiction know that at some level, external cravings are related to internal instincts, and until the internal, spiritual aspect of hunger or thirst is dealt with, there will be no success with the externals.  And that sort of spiritual work is something each person can only do for herself or himself, as hard as we may try to help another.

So much of our “wanting more” relates to the future.  We need to save and prepare—of course.  But Jesus (again and again) cautions us about worrying too much about the short run. Jesus senses this in the disciples and tells them, “Don’t focus so much on the food that perishes but focus on the food that endures for eternal life.”

To this, the disciples remind Jesus that God provided for the people of Israel when they were hungry.  And we hear about that in today’s first scripture reading.  The reading from Exodus recalls the when the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness. They became tired and irritable. They got hungry. And then, God fed them with manna– this mysterious, odd, flaky-like substance. In the words of the psalmist, “Mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.” (Psalm 78:24-25).

But the manna was only for the day. It was daily manna and needed to be consumed or it would spoil. If they left it out it became wormy. If it remained in the sun, it melted. This is because the manna was food, but it was more than food. Manna was meant to be consumed with faith. It took faith to rely upon the Lord to lead through the wilderness. It took faith to go to sleep each night trusting that there would be manna for the morrow.

Perhaps it’s from that old, ancient story about manna that the prayer began to be formed that would pray for daily manna, or daily bread. When we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” this is a part of what we’re praying for. Not just bread for right now, but bread for tomorrow, bread of promise, bread of hope.

Biblical scholars like to point out that the grammar of the Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for tomorrow, for bread of the future. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this in a meditation where he writes about this phrase

…At least some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; “give us today tomorrow’s bread”. And they’ve thought that might mean give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God. Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father. And so … Holy Communion is, at one level, bread for today, it’s very much our daily bread, it’s the food we need to keep going; but it’s also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven, at his table, at his banquet… Reflections on the Lord’s Prayer

Jesus says, “Look to God for the true bread from heaven. Look to God for the bread that comes down and gives life to the world.” And then Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

For Christians, Christ is our bread.  If we stay in relationship with Christ, we are fed—spiritually and in every other way.

Of course, we forget. We sometimes forget to eat or drink of the Spirit.  I was reminded of this when I heard a commentator talking about marathon runners.  The commentator pointed out how important it is for the runner to drink water BEFORE she’s thirsty. The person explained, “If you’re running a marathon and you wait until you’re thirsty to drink water, it’s too late, and the water you get will not do what it needs to do to replenish and refresh.” The spiritual life is a little like that, as well. If we wait until we notice the absence of Christ, if we wait until we feel God’s distance, then it can be much harder and slower to feel the strength, the consolation, the encouragement, the faith, we may need. And so, we eat and drink regularly, at this table, in this kind of worship.

By taking into ourselves the Body of Christ, we become one with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion happens to us. Communion overtakes us. Communion is God moving toward us and inviting us closer. Communion is our reaching out toward one another and even reaching beyond the church into the world.

Sometimes we forget to eat. At other times, we prefer junk food—the stuff that seems like it quenches the spirit, but only serves to fill us for a moment.  We can fall victim to addictions or temptations that move us away from our true self and true sustenance.  But we can always come back.

We can come back to the Table (to the Sacrament of Holy Communion).
We can come back to the food of Christ’s Spirit (through prayer).
We can come back or reach out for the experience of Christ’s Body (as he is made flesh in other people.)

Bread for today is a gift. Bread for tomorrow is our prayer. We are called to live with hope and with faith for whatever is ahead. We have challenges in our personal lives and we may have worries. God invites us to have faith that when tomorrow comes, God will give us the resources we need. We have problems that seem unsolvable, but with tomorrow’s bread, perhaps God will also give us new answers, creative solutions, and deeper insight.

Late summer is a good time for us to think about what it means to live by faith. There is still time for vacation, but plans are already being made for a new year at school, a new program year at church, a new season for business or work of any kind.

The scriptures leave us with a few questions:  In what ways, might God invite us to look for “bread for tomorrow?” In what ways are we invited to clear out the cupboards, the hiding places, the storage areas that build up our confidence, and rely on God for strength, for nourishment, for sustenance? Might God be calling us to a new place of faith? Might God be calling us to live a little more closely in touch with him, listening more closely for the new word, looking for intently for that which will feed and sustain and grow the Body of Christ into the future?

May we come to know in our hearts, minds, and bodies Him who is the bread of life, in whom all hunger, thirst, and desire are surpassed beyond our wildest dreams.

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

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Planning for Leftovers

food sharedA sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 29, 2018.  The scripture readings are 2 Kings 4:42-44,  Psalm 145:10-19Ephesians 3:14-21, and John 6:1-21

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Bible doesn’t say what kind of fish or what kind of bread was used to feed the thousands, but one thing is for sure: Jesus planned on having leftovers.

From the bounty and abundance, through the miracle of multiplication, all were fed. The scripture says “from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, [the disciples] filled twelve baskets.”

If you think about it, this is not unusual for Jesus. Wherever he goes, things seem to multiply. At Cana he makes water into wine, and it flows freely. On the Sea of Galilee he tells the disciples to throw their nets in one more time, and fish are suddenly everywhere. And now, here, on the other side of Galilee, Jesus does it again. He enlarges, expands, and transforms a little bit into a feast for all.

For the feast to happen—and for there to be extra– Jesus does three things.

First, he has a vision: Jesus can imagine people being fed. He can see it. Last week the Church read Mark’s Gospel and we skipped over Mark’s version of the feeding of the thousands. Had we read that version (or Matthew’s or Luke’s, for that matter) we would have seen a remarkable lack of vision on the part of the disciples. The disciples there look at the situation and only see a problem. They don’t identify with the other people and they see the hungry crowd as God’s problem, not theirs.

But today’s version of the story is different. According to John, Jesus is the first to notice the people’s need and he then almost quizzes the disciples to test their vision. For Jesus, the vision is real, even though the means of achieving the vision might not yet be clear. And so the first step in planning for leftovers is having a vision.

Next, Jesus shares the vision as he invites others into it. He makes it clear that he needs help. Turning to Philip, Jesus asks, “Where are we to buy bread…?” Philip responds like the disciples in the other Gospels: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough ….” Notice how Phillip talks about money. He’s a realist. He knows what it is to earn a wage. He knows the market. But even though he may be good with numbers, he’s slow to catch the vision of Jesus. Andrew is quicker. Andrew gets the vision and imitates Jesus by inviting others in. It’s Andrew who locates the boy with a few loaves and a few fish. Sharing in the vision of Christ, Andrew sees possibility in the boy’s offering. Like Jesus, Andrew doesn’t know exactly how it will end, but he invites the boy to be a part of the solution and moves forward.

First, there is the vision of people being fed. Then invitations go out to enlist the help of others. And then, there’s a third piece to this process toward leftovers. Jesus prays.

It might be tempting to see Jesus’s prayer as a stop in the story, a slowdown in the action. But it’s really just the opposite. Prayer is action in high gear. It’s concentrated effort. It’s energy condensed, channeled, and directed toward God.  St. John Vianney (the 19thcentury priest known for his simplicity and spirituality) used to say, “Private prayer is like straw scattered here and there: If you set it on fire it makes a lot of little flames. But gather these straws into a bundle and light them, and you get a mighty fire, rising like a column into the sky; public prayer is like that.” This is what happens when Jesus prays. People notice because of the quality and the focus and the love. The disciples see him and add their prayers. Then the people see the disciples praying and add their prayers. On and on it goes as priorities shift in prayer from our will (our hunger, our hope, our desire) to God’s will (the world’s hunger, the world’s hope, the world’s desire.) In praying to God, Jesus was reminding himself and everyone else that the work they were about to do—this multiplication of bread and fish—was not their work at all. It’s God’s work in which they are privileged to share.

Everyone is fed and there are fragments left over. Sometimes these are tangible fragments, like the extra bread and fish the disciples are able to put into baskets. But other times, the leftovers can almost be missed because of their subtlety. There may be increased faith left behind. There may be an expanded sense of family or community. Individuals who previously had no calling might find an entirely new vocation. There may be a fragment of joy at simply having accomplished something in the presence of God, something larger and mightier even than the combined efforts of all those present. Frederick Buechner calls this a miracle, “when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is when one plus one equals a thousand.” (The Alphabet of Grace, p. 87)

A few years ago the Church of England did a great study called Faithful Cities. The report celebrates the ministries of smaller churches and especially encourages us to claim what it calls, “Faithful capital,” which is a leftover, really. Faithful capital is increased as communities of faith “make a decisive and positive difference in their neighborhoods through the values they promote, the service they inspire, and the resources they command.” (Faithful Cities, p. 76). Holy leftovers become faithful capital through what one person has called “a thousand tiny empowerments” (Leonie Sandercock, in Faithful Cities, p. 2)

Planning for leftovers is hard and sometimes goes against our nature. We’re taught to conserve and be careful. Especially in seasons of scarcity. Play it safe. Don’t anticipate. Don’t over-extend. Expectations, after all, lead to resentments. On and on it goes: the caution and the fear. But as a people of faith, we need to remember that this caution can lead to a mentality of maintenance. And when our chief motivation is maintaining what we have, we’re on the sad road that leads from a people in mission to being a museum. And from being a museum to being a mausoleum.

We currently do pretty well with leftovers.  With food left over from film shoots and meetings, we sometimes supplement coffee hour.  With donated leftovers from Dig Inn restaurant, we have good meals for our shelter guests.  We do what we can with left-over vegetables from the CSA that delivers here and try to use donations, but we can do more.  We can do more especially with “faithful capital,” allowing the benefits of our parish to overflow into the community.

Maintenance and mission need not be mutually exclusive. For most churches, both are part of being the people of God. At Holy Trinity, we have a beautiful, old building. There would be nothing faithful about letting it fall apart. But at the same time, we’re called to envision and invite and pray about how we can be more—more involved in our community and the world, more engaged with the issues, and more responsive to the needs of those who hunger physically and spiritually.

In the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus again took bread. He blessed it, broke it, and shared it. And we do the same. At this altar and the altar we use in the garden, at the tables in the Mission House, in the tables of restaurants and homes, and wherever we celebrate the feast, may the Holy Spirit enable us to move with God’s vision, invite others, say our prayers and always plan for leftovers.

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

 

 

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The Wideness of God’s Mercy

Open ArmsA sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 22, 2018.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 23:1-6Psalm 23 Ephesians 2:11-22, and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Every so often, I run into one or two people who are starting a “new church” in Manhattan.  Every time I’ve met such people they are white, young, and seem confident, upwardly mobile, and ready to take on the world.  God has called them to this new venture of being part of a new Christian community, they believe. And I’m sure they believe that.

One young couple came to our 6 pm worship service.  I noticed them because they were new and I couldn’t help but notice (in that small gathering) that they did not come forward for Communion.  After the service, they asked if the church ever rented space to other groups.  It turns out that their congregation was looking for a new site in which to worship.

I explained that we do sometimes rent space, but that I would have some serious questions about another congregation worshipping in our space.  And then I said to them, “I don’t mean to be rude, but I wonder… why do you suppose God wants you to create a new church, mostly of young people like yourselves, when there are so many churches already.  And these churches have old people and young people, rich and poor, and could probably use your energy and faith?”  They seemed a little uncomfortable and finally said, “That’s an interesting question. We’ll have to ask our pastor what he thinks about that.”  Then they left.

Maybe we all, from time to time, imagine our “dream church.” But chances are that God’s vision for the Church is much broader than mine or yours, or even ours combined.

The scriptures today work together to show us God’s vision, God’s dream of his called and gathered people.  The readings remind us of the broadness, the expanse, and the array which is to be the church of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets right to the point— though, admittedly, Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. He writes about the “circumcised” and the “uncircumcised,” hardly a topic one might expect for a Sunday morning in July. But he’s really just using shorthand for a conversation about Jews and Gentiles, Gentiles being everyone who is not born Jewish. By the time of the Letter to the Ephesians, the early Church was filled with at least two kinds of people—some were former Jews who had decided to follow Christ. Many probably still thought of themselves as Jews, even thought they had, in many places, been driven out of the synagogues. But these Jews who followed Jesus were also successful at inviting non-Jews to join the movement. We have stories in scripture about some of them:  There was the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was the Centurion Cornelius, and before long there were many, many more.

But there’s a conflict going on in the early church at Ephesus. It’s not exactly clear what the problem is, but some scholars think it had to do with newer people beginning to follow Jesus who felt that since they were really Jewish (circumcised), they deserved a more immediate entry and a higher status in the community than those who were Gentile and had never been Jewish.

Among some early communities there was even the question of whether a Gentile man who joined the Christian Church should become circumcised like a Jew in order to be a good Christian. Should Gentile women adopt the customs of faithful and orthodox Jewish women? These questions may sound strange to us today, but they were HUGE question for early Christians.

And so, it’s in this atmosphere that Paul preaches, “You who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace.”

Paul goes on to write with assurance to the newly converted, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”

Paul says that we, all of us, are to be one household. If you go to Israel today and look at any of the archeological sites you can see what a household in the first few centuries looked like. It might be a couple of rooms, but then when the children grew older, a sleeping loft might be added on. Then when a child grew up and got married, an addition would be built on to the house, and so the household grew.

With each new addition, another room would be added. It didn’t matter if the new person was liked or disliked. It didn’t matter whether they brought anything in particular to the household. What mattered is that the new person was family, and they were welcomed, and they were included.

The other scripture readings for the day point to various dynamics with the church. The Old Testament reading warns that there will be those leaders who will seek to separate and divide. Some will attempt to scatter the flock and drive them away. But God will create a remnant of those who follow God, and this remnant from every land, and bring them home. And among this new family, there shall be no fear and none shall be missing.

In the Gospel, I wonder if this isn’t one of those places in which even Jesus questions his calling.  One can imagine a contemporary church growth consultant pointing out to Jesus that he would do much better if he were to focus on a particular demographic and tailor his message accordingly.  “Your vision is too big.  You can’t be all things to all people,” they would say.  In today’s Gospel, it seems like Jesus is getting tired and is trying to get a little break.  “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.”  And with that, Jesus tries to go off to a “lonely place.” It’s almost as though Jesus, himself has enough of a following, an already full plate, a more-than-full agenda.

But then, before long, God sends more people.  God expands the word, the appeal, the message, and the healing.  And God gives Jesus the power he needs to keep on.  Jesus teaches and heals and loves with the knowledge that God’s love is for everyone.  There is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.

A few years ago, the preacher and writer Martin Smith told a great story about a Sunday when he noticed a small boy doing a strange thing in church.  Martin noticed the little boy kept “high fiving” his mother.  Then, Martin noticed there was a pattern to the high fives—they happened at the end of prayers.  After church, when Martin saw the mother and child, he asked the mother, “What’s with the high-fives? It seems like there must be a story behind them?”  The mother smiled and explained that now, it was simply their way of participating in the worship and she hoped it wasn’t distracting. Martin assured her it was not, but still—he was curious.  “Well,” she said, “instead of hearing ‘AMEN,’ my son used to think we were saying what they say at soccer:  ‘I’m in!’”  “It just seemed right, then to follow the ‘I’m in!’ with a high five.”

“I’m in” perfectly captures the idea of an Amen.  Amen has been used not just as a punctuation mark to a prayer, but a way of our entering into the meaning and the intention of the prayer, of claiming our part in it, of saying “I’m part of the team.”  But it also means that there is a team.  There are others who have our back, and also lead out in front. There are people covering the sides.   Sometimes it’s our calling to play a different role, but faith is never, ever a solo sport.

Whether it is the worldwide community of believers who are trying to get along, or the Episcopal Church, or a local parish like this one—the good (but sometimes difficult) news of the Gospel is that all are welcome. It doesn’t matter if you are a life-long Christian. It doesn’t matter if you are still trying to figure God out.

God spreads a table before us in the presence of those who trouble us. God anoints us with holy oil, and fills our cup until it’s overflowing. God’s goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our life, and we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. We’re in—each one of us.

May God continue to remind us of his holy welcome, and may God continue to show us how to welcome one another.

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

 

 

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Bearing Witness

hildegards saintsA sermon for July 15, 2018, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Amos 7:7-15Psalm 85:8-13Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At yesterday’s wedding, here in the church, the congregation came through beautifully on what is one of my favorite parts of the wedding ceremony.  At the section near the beginning, called, “The Declaration of Consent,” the bride and the groom make promises to one another. This is where the language of “love, comfort, honor, and keep in sickness and in health,” comes in.  But then, in the Prayer Book liturgy, the officiant asks the whole congregation, “will all of you witnesses these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”  And the congregation thunders, “WE WILL!”  (If that sounds familiar, it’s because we do a very similar thing at every baptism when the congregation is asked to support those being baptized in their life in Christ. Again the assembly answers “WE WILL!”)

If there is a wedding rehearsal, I also instruct the wedding party to really say this part loudly.  If the congregation is too meek, I’ve repeated the question before, and added, “Once more, please, … with feeling this time…”

I want to hear people say We Will support the couple, because of the power of bearing witness.

The Greek word for witness is martys, or martyr in English.  A martyr, among people of faith, is often portrayed as one who is persecuted or who dies for his or her faith.  But in its truest sense, a Christian martyr is simply one who bears witness to Jesus Christ.

Today’s scriptures are not the cheeriest.  They speak of difficulty and demand—but they also speak of deep and abiding faith.

The Old Testament lesson gives us a brief profile of the prophet Amos.  Amos has the hard job of speaking out against power, in this case against King Jeroboam.  The king’s own priest gets wind of it, tells the king, and they put out the word that Amos is all about “fake prophecy.” The religious power structure of the day (which has cozied up to the governmental power structure) turns against him.  “Go preach and prophesy somewhere else,” they tell Amos.  But Amos says, I’m not in this to make a name for myself.  I’m no threat to you.  I’m a migrant farm worker.   Amos basically says, “Look, I’m nobody special.  But God called me and told me to step up and tell the truth.”

The story of Amos reminds us that being a witness to truth is easy.  And of course, the example from our Gospel comes down to us in history not only from scripture but from theatre by Oscar Wilde and opera by Richard Strauss.

John the Baptist DID speak the truth, and we have the awful story that is all too current—literally in other parts of the world, but just as real in our world as people lose job, reputation, friend, retirement, social standing—when they speak hard truth.  With King Herod, power prevails, in the short run.  But that’s the essential thing for us to remember. The powerful appear to win, but they only have the advantage for now.

The Letter to the Ephesians gives an eye into God’s long-run plan.  God has a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  That’s a huge plan.  It means that in Christ everything will find its completion and fulfillment.  In Christ, everything will grow to its right purpose and ending—event those who are cut short in this life.

Everything and everyone is redeemed and perfected, brought to completion in God’s good love.

That sort of hope doesn’t allow us to rest content with injustice in this world, assured that life in the next will be better.  Instead, hope in God compels us to live forward, in the open, in the light.  It’s that hope in which we live, toward which we point… that hope to which we bear witness.

I have a cousin who lives in a small town near Tampa, Florida.  We were talking on the phone a few weeks ago, and I asked him how things were in his community.  He laughed and he said he thought he might have to find a new barber.  When I asked, “Why?” he explained what happened the other Saturday morning.

It’s a chain of a hair place where men and women both get their hair cut.  A woman was almost done getting her haircut in the next chair and she was talking to her stylist about all the Muslims who had moved into her neighborhood.  “They’re everywhere,” she said, “and I’m afraid to even go outside. You never know if your next-door neighbor is a terrorist or not….”  My cousin said that he had heard similar comments while the lady had been getting her hair done, but he decided that it was time to say something.  “You know,” he said in his slow, Southern accent. “If you look at history, everybody has done their fair share of violence and terrorism.  Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus… people are people, and even though most people are good, there are always a few who make the headlines. You can’t just all Muslims by what you see in the news.”

My cousin’s barber stopped cutting his hair for a minute, exchanged looks with the other stylist, and then continued.  The lady in the next chair grew red in the face and didn’t say another word–but left soon thereafter.  The stylist who had been cutting her hair went outside for a smoke and several of the other customers who were in the shop went outside to join her. My cousin said that he though his barber might have rushed the haircut.

My cousin might find another barber, but in that one, quiet moment in the barbershop, he spoke up and spoke the truth.  Whatever conversation was brewing next to him, he at least, stopped it for a moment and took the energy out of it.  There might be consequences but there also might be the possibility of surprise, of encounter with someone who might point to a larger issue, and might suggest a more complicated picture than first imagined.

We are called to bear witness to the love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Sometimes that means saying “no, thank you” at work, in social situations, or at the voting booths.  Sometimes it means protesting and witnessing in public ways, and other times might mean a quieter approach.  Bearing witness always and everywhere includes prayer, that God would reveal God’s truth, that faithful people everywhere might be strengthened, and that God’s reign would enfold and embrace all.

Our prayer for the day asks that God might “grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”  With the saints and martyrs, with the mothers and fathers, with the sophisticated and the plainspoken, may we also bear witness.

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

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God in the Garden

Wosczyk Wedding

A homily offered at the marriage of Lauren E. Kennedy and Matthew H. Wosczyk on July 14, 2018 at The Church of the Holy Trinity.  The Gospel was Matthew 5:1-10. 

Every once in a while, I meet someone who finds out that I’m a priest and is polite and respectful about what I spend my time doing. But the person will say something along the lines of, “you know, I’ve always felt like I can know God just as well—or better—walking in the woods, sailing on the water, or working in the garden.” I normally surprise such a person by agreeing with them, but then I ask a question.  “What do you do,” I wonder, “when a storm comes?  Where is God for you, then?”

At that point, I usually realize that I’ve done it again. I’ve spoiled a perfectly innocuous conversation by bringing theology into it.

Good things can happen in a garden.  The story of creation itself begins in a garden as God creates people and animals and plants of all kinds, and with each, God steps back and proclaims it all Good. The Song of Solomon uses garden imagery to represent creation, but also in a kind of lush and somewhat erotic way: all that blooms and smells suggests the love between two people, which is just a hint of the love God has for each of us.  Jesus often goes into a garden to pray, to be quiet, to listen for God’s voice, and to learn—as he then shares lessons with others about the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, the winds, and the waves. The scripture I just read, known as The Beatitudes, takes place on a hill, probably a lush one, with grass and trees and perhaps water in view.

Gardens are places where one can meet God, for sure, places where the beauty and truth of the Beatitudes seem self-evident.  Until the storm comes.

But faith in God helps us even when the storms come.   Remember there was a storm, of sorts, in that original garden, symbolized by the serpent, Satan, the accuser who is like that little voice inside our heads that always doubts, that always accuses, that tries to ruin every picnic.  But God shows up and promises always to love Adam and Eve—no matter what.

Jesus preaches and prays in gardens, but recall also that on the night before his death, he’s arrested in a garden.  It’s his faith and his connection with God that reminds him that no matter what kind of storm may come—whether the gardens of this world seem to be torn to shreds and every beautiful thing trampled upon—God still IS.  God still is Love.  And God’s love continues forever.

It is no surprise that Lauren and Matt’s wedding follows a garden theme.  Enjoy the flowers. Enjoy the smells, and sounds, and tastes, and the presence of love all around.  But also, never forget that God tends all gardens, and even in the darkness, even when things are tough, even when we feel alone or afraid or like God is busy pulling weeds elsewhere—return to the garden and wait for God.  God will appear and will enfold you in love.

The weeds will grow.  The pests will annoy.  There may be times of drought or what feels like a flood.  But God has grown your love and will tend it with loving care for ever and ever.

Blessings to you, Matt and Lauren; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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