The Blessing Right Here

Oct 13 2019 croppedA sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2019, which included the Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.  The scriptures are 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c, Psalm 111, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, and Luke 17:11-19

Listen to the sermon HERE.

There’s an old story about a man who goes rents a summer house in a beautiful valley. From the first day of his time there, he notices one house all the way across the valley, so far that he can barely make it out. But in the late afternoon, he can see it because it has golden windows. The house he’s in is not so bad. It’s small and somewhat simple, sure, but it’s nice. And yet, he looks across, and there’s a house so that much be so special, so amazing. He begins to imagine what IT must be like—its rooms, the materials that make it up, it probably has a HUGE kitchen. And so, and after weeks, the man decides to try to hike across the valley and visit this golden-windowed house. He takes provisions, knowing that it will take him a few days to hike the journey. Off he goes, all the time, noticing that there’s a growing excitement inside him—who would live in a house with golden windows? Is it someone famous? Are they going to be friends? Is this the beginning of a new, amazing adventure? Over the several nights that he’s camping and hiking, he can barely sleep for the curiosity of wondering what he’s find.

Finally, he close. He sees a trail and eventually a driveway. He makes his way up to what seems like a house in the right spot, but not THE house. This must be the groundskeeper’s house, or some out building, but surely the person here will have information on the golden-windowed house. And so he knocks on the door. A older woman opens the door, and he explains that he’s looking for the house with the golden windows. “Is it close by?” he asks. The women looks at him with a surprised look and says, “Why, no. Actually, the house with the golden windows is way over there, across the valley, but it’s so far away that you can only really see it in the morning.” She points in the direction from which the man has come, and says, “There’s the house with the golden windows.”

How often do we miss the blessing that is right in front of us, the common, wonderful, gift-of-God right where we are?

In the first scripture reading, Naaman, the tough, smart military commander has a problem: he has leprosy. A young girl mentions to Naaman’s wife that there’s a great prophet in Israel who can heal the commander. He should go and see him, and so Naaman makes the trip to see Elisha. Elisha sends a messenger out to Naaman with simple instructions: “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” Naaman is furious. Can’t Elisha at least pray over him, or give him some special medicine, or do SOMETHING extraordinary? They’ve got better rivers at home—why should he bother with the River Jordan? Naaman turns in a huff, but his servants point out to him, “Sir, if the prophet had asked you to do something complicated, you would have done it, right? But how much easier simply to do the thing in front of you?” Naaman washes in the river, and is made clean.

The source of healing was there, all along. All Naaman had to do (and it’s a lot for most of us) was to put himself second, try on a little humility, take advice from someone else, and receive the good that was right there in front of him.

In the Gospel, ten lepers are healed and told by Jesus to go and show themselves to the priest for a final blessing. Nine of them just keep on going. They move on, perhaps looking for the next thing to fill them with happiness, or satisfaction, or safety. But the one healed leper—the Samaritan (the foreigner, the outsider, the one who was made fun of and talked about)—came back to Jesus to thank him. He understood that Jesus was the connected to the source of all healing and that he didn’t need to look any further for truth, for peace, or for love.

In both our primary scripture readings, we hear about people who are healed, but a big part of their healing has to do with what is right in front of them. Naaman in the first story and the leper in the second realize that they already live in a house with golden windows. They have all they need right where they are.

Today we celebrate and bless the love of Margie and Patsy. They have found in each other healing, wholeness, peace, and love—all centered and rooted in a life with Christ. Like golden windows, their affection radiates outward. Like cool waters that heal and renew, the current of their relationship offers safety and welcome to others.

As we celebrate the courage and faith of Patsy and Margie, may God help us to see the blessing in our midst, to claim that blessing, hold onto it for dear life, and for the love of God, protect it at all costs.

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

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Following Francis in Humility and Peace

st_francis_meets_the_wolf

A sermon for October 6, 2019, celebrated as St. Francis Sunday at The Church of the Holy Trinity.  The scriptures are Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-10, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, and Luke 17:5-10

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Today’s Gospel can sound rough on the ears. Jesus speaks casually about “slaves,” who were a given segment of his culture. It can be disturbing for us to hear Jesus this way, and not call out aspects of culture that today we find abhorrent. But scriptures like these do remind us of the humanity of Jesus along with his divinity. As a human, Jesus lived and moved in his own time, taking on the mindset, and even some of the un-examined assumptions of his culture, such as slavery.

The point of the Gospel today is, of course, not about slavery, but about humility. It begins as the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus then seems to suggest that their faith will be increased if they learn the way of humility. “Don’t go into something, looking for an engraved thank you note.” “Don’t look for special notice for doing what is simply expected.” Jesus is saying, “Try to be right-sized. Remember your place in creation.”

Today, creation and our place in it are themes that run through our worship. We celebrate St. Francis of Assisi today because it’s the closest Sunday to his feast day, October 4. Francis loved animals, but he even loved the fiercest, most dangerous, most unpredictable: Francis even loved humans.

There’s a story about Francis that has to do with this love of animals AND his love of humans.

As St. Francis and his band of brothers were preaching through the Umbrian countryside of what would become Italy, there was a report that an evil wolf was terrorizing the town of Gubbio. The wolf was fierce like no one had ever seen: it killed sheep and shepherd, alike. The mayor of the town sent for Francis, having heard that Francis was a kind of “animal whisperer.” He had a way with them, so maybe he could do something.
The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

Francis saw the wolf, who was frothing at the mouth and growling. The crowd stood motionless and silent. Francis stared at the wolf. Anger flashed in the wolf’s eyes and he was working his jaws, slobbering onto the ground. Francis dared not move, but he said in a simple, low, quiet voice, “Brother Wolf.” The wolf quieted down in an apparent response. “Brother Wolf,” Francis continued, “in the name of Jesus, our brother, I have come for you. We need you in the city. These people here have come with me to ask you, great ferocious one, to be the guardian and protector of Gubbio. In return we offer you respect and shelter for as long as you live. In pledge of this I offer you my hand.”

Francis stretched out his hand. The wolf seemed calm, but remained immobile, scanning the crowd. Then slowly he walked to Francis and lifted his paw into his warm, steady hand. The two remained in that position for a long time and what they said to one another Francis never told a living soul. (Murray Bodo, Francis: the Journey and the Dream (Cincinnati: St. Anthony’s Messenger Press, 1988), 53.

The story of Francis taming a wolf spread, and people still tell the story. But some have suggested that the story has another meaning.

You see, in 1219, in the middle of the Fifth Crusade, Francis wanted to go and meet the Sultan of Egypt, a Muslim—at first, with the idea of telling him about Jesus Christ and converting him Walking right through the battlefield, Francis went and was received by Malik al-Kamil. The sultan seems to have regarded Francis as a harmless holy man or a kind of Christian Sufi. After sharing conversation, and perhaps a meal, Francis left. Francis went straight to Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander in the crusades, and pleaded with him for peace, to stop fighting, to lay down arms.

Francis also told his Franciscan brothers (who were preaching the Gospel life in all directions) that when they went to a Muslim place, they first should preach Jesus Christ, but if the Muslims are not interested in converting, then the Christians should live among them in peace.

Some have suggested that this story of Francis and the “wolf” is really a re-telling of Francis going to meet the Sultan and attempting to broker some kind of peace. But such a peace would have been bad for the business of the crusades, counter to the intentions of Rome at the time, and so (some believe) the real story of Francis’ mission of peace went underground in the form of a fairy tale about a wolf-taming.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encourages us to remember our place in creation, to be right-sized, and to follow the way of humility into greater faith. Francis shows us what following Christ in the way of humility looks like: not taking others’ word for who is an enemy, befriending creation (whether it’s a reportedly deadly wolf, or a rumored murderous Muslim), and by doing what he can not only to work for peace, but to embody peace, looking for God’s blessing in every living creature.

Who in our world are we led to believe is a big, bad wolf? Are there ways we can move toward a perceived enemy in the spirit of peace? Are there modern “crusades” that try to get us all swept up in their fury but are quick to label the stranger or foreigner as the enemy (when sometimes the real enemy is closer to home)? What brings you deep peace, so that you can begin to be a person of peace for others?

Especially in these early October days when the Church honors and remembers St. Francis, may we certainly notice the animals around us and give thanks. May we befriend them and share peace with them. But may we also work harder to notice the people around us, giving thanks, doing our part to be people of peace.

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One who fights for us

window5-victory

“Victory” window from St. Martin’s Church, Brampton, Cumbria

A homily offered on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels (transferred) at the Community of St. John Baptist, Mendham, NJ, on October 1, 2019. The scripture readings are Genesis 28:10-17Psalm 103 or 103:19-22Revelation 12:7-12, and John 1:47-51.

In the news and elsewhere, there’s a lot of talk about “strategy.” One develops a strategy in order to win an argument or court case.  One develops a strategy to accomplish a goal. But we develop strategies for smaller, more personal things, as well, don’t we?

I am very much the grandson of a Southern grandmother who did her part to elevate passive-aggressive speech patterns to the level of an art form.  I blame my grandmother when I ask things like, “Does it seem just a little bit cool in here to you?”  When what I really mean to say is, “Would you turn off the air-conditioning?”  I speak in riddles and round-about ways to accomplish what I want without seeming selfish or willful. It’s a strategy.

A friend of mine who was trying to give up smoking a while back had a strategy for dealing with his temptations to light up—he’d reach for a sugar-free candy and text or call a friend.

We have strategies for all kinds of things and many times they are helpful.  They show us how to move forward in order to get things done. But sometimes we strategize rather than pray.  The strategy becomes a way to manipulate and control, to get something or someone to conform to our will.

Nathaniel is someone who has no strategy. In our Gospel reading, Jesus points out Nathaniel as one in whom “there is no deceit” (John 1:47).  The old Revised Standard Version had Jesus proclaim Nathaniel as one “in whom there is no guile.”  This is one of those verses where I really like Eugene Peterson’s version in The Message.  He has Jesus say about Nathaniel, “there’s not a false bone in his body.”

Nathaniel doesn’t strategize. He has faith in God and later, faith in Jesus as the Son of God, and that’s enough for him. With faith, he’s able to see people for who they are.  He sees things for what they are, without clutter or prejudice or complication.  I think this is why Jesus says Nathaniel will be able to see, like Jacob, “the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Before Vatican II, a Prayer to St. Michael was often included near the end of the Mass.  Though it was officially suspended in 1964, a number of churches have begun using it again, careful to do so after the Mass has officially ended, so they’re not adding or subtracting from the official liturgy. The prayer is a serious one:

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil.  May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls.  Amen.

While I don’t plan on introducing the Prayer of St. Michael any time soon, I do appreciate its acknowledgment that the fight against evil belongs to God.  My job is to have faith and stand on the side of Good.  My job is to be as much like Nathaniel as I can be: without deceit or guile, with no bad bone in my body.  Whether it’s God or the Angels of God who do the fighting, it’s their battle and not mine.

The Orthodox have an interesting word for Michael.  They refer to him as the “archistrategos,” chief commander, the leader of the heavenly troops.  Our word, “strategy” comes from the Greek, “strategos.”  On this day for remembering Michael and All the Angels, may the Spirit give us faith to leave the strategy to the “archistrategos,” that we might see more clearly and follow more nearly our risen Savior Christ.

 

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Crossing the Chasm

spanning the divideA sermon for September 29, 2019, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Amos 6:1a,4-7, Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, and Luke 16:19-31

Listen to the sermon HERE.

A young person in the neighborhood asked me the other day if we would be doing our usual Thanksgiving project. (If you’re new to Holy Trinity, you may not know that through HTNC, volunteers come through the week leading up to Thanksgiving and prepare several hundred Thanksgiving dinners that are then delivered to homebound neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.) She wanted to know so that she could use us as a reason why she would be unable to join her family in New Jersey for Thanksgiving Dinner. She explained that she was looking for a good reason to stay here because last year’s Thanksgiving dinner with family—some of whom support the current President of the United States and some of whom cannot stand him—last year’s dinner was pretty miserable, she said. And she feels like this year will be even worse because her family is so divided. There was a big distance between them last year, and that distances is only growing wider by the day. Who knows where we will be, come late November?

Whether we’re divided by political beliefs, cultural differences, or who knows what… we can all probably think of areas of our lives in which we experience division—perhaps a great distance, a divide, a kind of chasm.

Today’s Gospel talks about such a chasm, one caused primarily by the expanse between rich and poor. The poor man is named Lazarus (the same name as Mary and Martha’s brother, the one who was raised from the dead, but a different Lazarus, altogether). We’re not told the name of the rich man, though tradition often calls him, “Dives,” from the Latin word meaning, “rich man.”

Jesus tells the story to the Pharisees as a way of showing how they are misinterpreting great tradition handed down by Moses and the Prophets. The Pharisees are twisting religion and using it for their own ends. And so, it’s in that context that Jesus tells them of a very rich man, a man so rich that every meal is a feast. But outside the man’s house is this person named Lazarus. Lazarus is always there, waiting for a little food, hoping for a little money, or maybe just praying for a break.

The two men die: Dives (the rich man) and this poor man, Lazarus. They both go off to the place that Jews and Christians in the first century believed the dead went.

There in Hades, Dives looks over and sees Lazarus walking with Abraham—Abraham the father of the faith; Abraham, the greatest ancestor; and in this case, Abraham, the most important person at the party. Dives calls out, probably hoping to remind Lazarus once again of his place and maybe show Abraham what a bigshot Dives is. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’”

But now it’s time for Dives to be surprised. Abraham say, “Remember, Dives, that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.” And then, almost as an afterthought, Abraham adds, “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed.”

A “great chasm.” A distance, an expanse, a void… it’s THIS that dooms Dives. It’s this distance that keeps him from knowing much about Lazarus or about Lazarus’s life.

We should note that Jesus is not telling this story to paint a geographical picture of heaven. Nor is he offering a theologically accurate picture of heaven. Jesus is not for a minute justifying a miserable life on earth by saying that “one’s reward will be in heaven.” Neither is he suggesting that all of those who have known blessing in this life will see a reversal in heaven. But instead, I think Jesus wants to point out to those words of Abraham, to the chasm, the divide, the gulf—the problem of separation, that—if not dealt with here on earth—can follow us into heaven.

If we don’t attempt to lessen the chasms in this life, they may be so deep as to keep us from entering heaven.

When Jesus describes the rich man on earth, he never says that the man is bad. The rich man is not an evil man, nor is he especially sinful. It’s never suggested that Dives gained his wealth by dishonest means, nor are we even told that he is stingy—it seems that he was at least generous with his friends, and he remembered the poor with his leftovers.
But he kept himself apart. He kept himself away, separated, and removed from the pain of Lazarus and others like him. Dives had kept to his side of the chasm. And he had been quite happy there.

What are the chasms that separate us from others?

There are the obvious ones. We gather this morning in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country, where power, money, education and opportunity are concentrated. Some of us might be on one side or the other of this chasm of wealth and privilege, and it’s hard to know how to stretch a hand across to the other side.

Within religion and within the Anglican Communion, in many parts of the world—the separation has to do with race or gender; sexual identity or orientation. But we should never be so smug as to think that we have crossed over those chasms, even here. What eventually becomes a chasm might more often begin with a hairline crack–we notice the differences in income or fashion or speech pattern or intellect or age. But if we’re not careful, the differences we notice become distances between us. We drift, we become separate and the chasm widens.

And we have these difficult, painful chasms inflamed by politics and so-called “cultural wars.” We imagine chasms sometimes that are simply not there. I’ve met people in other parts of the country who are surprised to hear that even though I live in New York City, I grew up shooting guns and can often have fairly conservative economic opinions. And I’m sometimes surprised to meet people in other parts of the country who might have thick accents different from mine, but listen to Public Radio and live a vegan lifestyle. Our world is too wonderful and complicated to waste time and energy on prejudice.

We have several means of navigating the chasms. First, we can befriend the stranger. Spend time with the one we perceive as different and really try to listen without prejudice, without forming our response, without needing to be on the offense.

Second, we can pray for people who at a distance. Sometimes we give thanks for the distance, but we pray for them anyway and pray God’s best intention and love for them—even, for them.

And third, in this Sacrament of Holy Communion, we practice the simply sharing of food and drink that are the Body and Blood of Christ. Through the mysteries of Holy Communion, Christ’s Body and Blood become part of our body and blood, and so they empower us to grow into the prayer that asks,

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

May God help us to move closer to others across all chasms, real or perceived.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Crafty for the Kingdom of God

workplaceA sermon for September 22, 2019, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Amos 8:4-7 , Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I have a date on my calendar next month for meeting with the church’s investment committee.  That committee is chaired by Jean Geater and is filled with some very good, very smart members of the parish.  I don’t go to all of the meetings, but I like to go, when I can.  I learn more about the current state of the world economy, how the church’s investments are faring, and – I suppose I should admit it—there’s something kind of fun about wearing a black suit and clergy collar into offices filled with financial people.  Perhaps it’s good, at some level, for a priest to be seen, walking through such a secular building; but even more, it’s good for me to remember that only a small percentage of God’s work is done in a church building—the larger part of God’s work and mission play out in offices, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, subways, and wherever God’s people go.

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about how we move with God out in the world, and how we sometimes might place barriers between what is perceived as “the spiritual” and “the worldly.”

The prophet Amos thunders forth from our first reading. “Hear this,” he says, “you that trample on the needy. You who cheat the poor and push around the defenseless. [God] will turn your feasts into mourning, and … your songs into lamentation.” The point to Amos’s preaching is not to criticize formal or elaborate worship. The point is that with all the resources at Israel’s disposal, with all the wealth in their temple, in their homes and in their hands, they are (at the end of the day) showing themselves to be a stingy, selfish people.

Amos points out the hypocrisy in Israel’s worship, in the ordering of their lives, in their culture. They have forgotten when they were poor. They have forgotten when they were aliens. They have forgotten when they were not the majority. But God never forgets. And God will bring justice. God holds God’s people accountable.

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that the MEANS of our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involve some strange relationships. This means that we’re called to move in a world of faithful people—followers of Jesus who take their faith into the marketplace and the boardroom can help others to navigate these spaces.  It means that God calls us to be smart, shrewd and resourceful not in some future realm, but in the here-and-now.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about a rich man who has a dishonest manager. This manager is not only underperforming, but seems to be either skimming off the top or manipulating the funds in some other way. The accounts do not add up, and the rich man gives the manager notice. But the manager sees some of this coming. He knows his days are numbered, so he makes plans, and his plans involve building up “credit” with others. Before he leaves, the manager goes around to all of those who owe the rich man. He cuts his losses. He lowers each person’s total, collects what he can and tries to prepare for the future. He is a pragmatist and his quick thinking seems to get him back into the favor of his boss.

In this parable, Jesus is simply telling a story. He does not mean for his disciples or us to identify specifically with one character or another. He is not encouraging us to be cheats. He is not suggesting that the kingdom of God is achieved by dishonesty or duplicity. But there is the suggestion that the kingdom of God benefits from a shrewd mind and from a willingness to make use of all the resources at one’s disposal. The Christian faith is not helped by feeble-mindedness or by a kind of pious naïveté. Rather, in Jesus’ words, the “children of light” can learn a few things from the “children of this age.” That is to say that those who seek to follow Jesus can learn even from, and perhaps especially from some who are secular and even nonreligious. This idea is echoed in Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples to be “as sheep in the midst of wolves, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Today’s readings suggest that we have a role to play in the ongoing life of God and the unfolding of God’s kingdom. It matters what we do with what we have, whether we have just a tiny bit or whether we have a whole lot. Whatever we have can be used for God’s good will. What we have in terms of our energy, our mind, our faith, our compassion, our talent, our money— all of this has a role to play in God’s unfolding kingdom.

Using what we have, for God, is the central message of today’s scripture. It is what Jesus is saying to his disciples—that even though the manager in the story is less-than-honest, perhaps he’s even a little shady and maybe even a little underhanded, the manager does everything he can to prepare for the future—he uses all of his resources in the most creative way he can, and it’s that creativity and resourcefulness that Jesus is lifts up for us.

Very soon, we’ll be talking about “using what we have” for God’s glory in very tangible ways, as our church enters Stewardship Season.  A pledge form is not only for money (though we use pledges so that we can create the operating budget for the next year, and we NEED your pledge—whether it’s a dollar or thousands of dollars).  A pledge form also has various ministries and efforts of the church listed, inviting you to consider where God might be calling you to spend some time, or spend some energy.  Don’t underestimate the things you have, the skills you possess, the relationships and connections you enjoy—God calls and consecrates the WHOLE person, and wants us to be creative and crafty as follow and serve Christ.

Maybe you can volunteer with HTNC (Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center) with the Tuesday lunch, the Saturday dinner, or the weeknight homeless shelter. Or maybe you can volunteer with Trinity Cares, our network of people who can help with odds and ends, going with you or picking you up from a doctor’s appointment, or just visiting. Or maybe you don’t have time, but some of your extra money could not only support the music and museums around the city, but could help underwrite the programs here that invite people into God’s love through the “beauty of holiness.” There will be time in the days ahead for us to consider prayerfully (and honestly) how God might be calling each of us to be a part of God’s work at Holy Trinity and beyond.

Our Collect of the Day prays that even as we are surrounded by earthly things, that we would not be anxious about them, but hold on to what lasts, what endures, what helps others, and what furthers the community and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we learn to use all that we have and all that we are for God, and never be afraid to be crafty for the kingdom of God.

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

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A God of Lost and Found

shepherdessA sermon for September 15, 2019, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-11, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, and Luke 15:1-10.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Scripture can sometimes sound remote. We are a long way from the people of Israel wandering in Egypt. We don’t seem to have religious leaders like Moses who receive direct communication from the Almighty. And especially as we look at today’s Gospel, at first, it might seem to refer to people of another time and place altogether. Jesus talks about someone who has lost a sheep (and most of us have never had a sheep to get lost, in the first place.) When you read today’s Gospel in many bibles, it still uses the word for the specific Greek coin, the “drachma,” – not exactly a word we hear every day. And yet, today’s Gospel is not so much about lost sheep and lost coins. It’s more about lost people. And that’s something most of us have some experience with.

Especially in our culture, especially in our age, people get lost. Someone leaves their small town, goes to school, and comes to a new city—maybe this city—and quickly falls into a new pattern of work and striving. Sometimes such a person becomes lost in her work. Or, five, ten, or even twenty years later, a furlough hits, or a reorganization. She loses her job, but it’s not the job that becomes lost. The woman who has invested so much of herself in her work and career—she’s the one who feels lost.

The news this week explained that of the 2,753 confirmed victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center, only 60 percent have been identified. Another way of putting it would be that 60 percent of those who were lost have been found. And yet, DNA testing continues, and the medical examiner’s office continues its painstaking work of looking and finding.

Alzheimer’s or dementia can take a person to some far away place. Disease, drugs or addictions can make a person lost from family but also lost to himself. And then there’s the euphemism we so often hear for death—“I’ve lost my grandmother. Or, I’ve lost my spouse.” But so often it’s not the loved one who is lost. That person is very much found in the heart and heaven of God. But it’s US—it’s you and me, the surviving, who feel lost.
However the loss happens, whenever we feel it or know someone who is overtaken by it, the question can arise (in a lot of us, anyway), “Where is God?” Have we lost God, too? Where is God when someone can’t find their way out of addiction? Where is God when someone’s mind no longer allows her to recognize her family? Where is God when people die senseless deaths?

Our scriptures today tell us exactly where God is. God is there. God is here. God is wherever God needs to be, seeking the lost, doing whatever it takes, changing divine plans, changing the course of history if it takes that, just to save and find one lost person.
In the first lesson today, the people of Israel feel lost. They feel afraid and cut off from God. They feel so lost that they begin to substitute other things for God—stuff of silver and gold. They begin to worship pretty things, expensive things. Finally Moses returns and he gradually helps them find their way again. And God actually changes his mind—changes his plans, changes the course of history—just to make a way so that his children can find love again, can find God again.

The second reading has the Apostle Paul explaining to Timothy how he, himself was lost, until Christ came for him. Paul had hunted down Christians, he had persecuted them, and he had done all he could to undermine the way of Jesus and the people who followed him. But in what Paul describes as the “utmost patience” God found Paul, and that helped Paul find himself.

In the Gospel, we see a God who will go to desperate means for us. God will do whatever it takes to find someone, and to bring that person home.

Jesus tells the story about a shepherd who has 99 sheep. One wanders off and can’t be found, so the shepherd leaves the 99 and pursues the one.

There is a lost coin. A coin that has fallen out of reach, or has gotten behind something, or has seemed to disappear altogether. So, the woman stops what she’s doing and basically turns her whole house upside-down to find the lost coin.

The point in all of these stories is that God goes out of his way to find what is lost, to re-claim what is lost, to recover and restore anything and anyone who is lost. God reaches out for us. God looks for us. God does not stop calling our name.

I learned an important lesson about the seemingly when I was first ordained and was leading a simple worship service at a nursing home. At this little service, my rotation was once a month, and it took a lot of energy to try to be present, to be “with,” and to be engaged, when only about five or six people seemed alert, and another twenty or so seemed— well, they seemed sort of “lost.” On one particular day, I had led them in singing a hymn, and the five faithful helped me sing it. Then, I invited them to join me in reading Psalm 23, which was printed in a large printed card for them to use. The five faithful joined along. But so did several others. One woman, in particular, who never spoke and never looked one in the eye, but always seemed far away in another world almost—her lips began to move, as she recalled from some deep, old place, the words of a Good Shepherd who finds us.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” God leads us into green pastures—not that we’re cows or sheep, but the green pastures become a symbol for whatever is for us a place of rest and refuge, a place of nurture and sustenance. God lead us beside still waters, stilling the rapids of our life, slowing us down, and collecting us in one place. God restores our soul. Even when we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death,” we have nothing to fear, because God is there. Even if we don’t see God, even if we don’t particularly feel God in that moment—God is there. Even when (as we recalled this week on the Anniversary of September 11) there are those who die all too suddenly, those whose lives are taken– God nevertheless calls, God loves, and God welcomes by name.
Psalm 23 reminds us that God leads us into a place where there’s an enormous feast, a feast so big that it includes not only everyone we’ve ever loved, but even our enemies, transformed into friends. There in the full presence of God, in the fullness of love, God anoints us and calls us by name.

No one and nothing stays lost from God. God seeks and searches and calls out by our truest name, and calls us into love, into laughter, and into life everlasting. As the church, it’s our job to help one another hear God’s calling. Whether we are the lost who are found, or whether we are among those who fling open the door and welcome those who return—we are, all of us, called to join in the celebration.

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Following the Cross into Fall

lozano-piedad-en-el-desiertoA sermon for September 8, 2019, the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon 1-21, and Luke 14:25-33

Listen to the sermon HERE

One of the most moving times of the year for me to be in church is on Good Friday. I love the old prayers, the music, and the slow pace of the worship that allows us to imagine what Jesus went through in his death on the cross. But I especially love the part of the service we call the Veneration of the Cross. In this church and many, many churches, a simply wooden cross is brought forward and the faithful are invited to come forward and “venerate.” Veneration is different from “worship.” To venerate is to show respect, to give thanks, to show love, even; all the while understanding that the thing or image venerated points to a deeper, greater reality. What I love so much about the act of venerating the cross is that while it’s an individual decision—whether to come forward, whether to kneel before it, stand near it, touch it, or even kiss it—we venerate the cross together. Two volunteers usually hold the cross. Ushers help direct people. Usually one or two of us is on hand to help those who wish get to a kneel and then help them get back up again. While it’s deeply personal, it seems like everyone around understands this and respects this.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” I think we misunderstand these words if we take them to mean that Jesus is calling us to some kind of individualistic or self-involved piety. We practice taking up our cross on Good Friday. We practice in our own prayers and our faithful living, but we also do it together.

Speaking of one’s “cross to bear” is sometimes used more casually, as though a difficult member of the family, or a coworker, or a challenging commute to work is one’s “cross to bear.” But we should be careful about that. Everyday difficulties are not “crosses” to bear. A difficult person is not a “cross to bear.” And we should be very clear than if one is ever in a relationship of abuse, it is never a theological justification for the victim to stay in such a relationship by telling herself or himself that this is just “a cross to bear.”

To bear one’s cross, or to be ready to bear one’s cross is a way of expressing what it means to follow in the way of Jesus. And “to follow in the way of Jesus” means to follow with others. It has no meaning in isolation. It has to do with our being ready to give up our place for another. To give up our privilege, to give up our rights, even. It has to do with our attempts to put our own needs and desires and passions on hold long enough to look around and notice the needs of others.

A few minutes ago I described that part of the Good Friday liturgy that focuses on the cross, but there are other ways that we engage in becoming a “cruciformed” community. There are other ways that we share one another’s burdens and can come to see the risen Christ in our midst.

When friends gather around one who is sick or awaiting results from a biopsy or test or is undergoing surgery, there is participation in the cross of Christ. The friends put themselves second, and lift up their friend who is in need.

When someone dies and the whole community is able to gather around the one who lives on, the cross of Christ is shared. In such times the cross can begin to feel like a kind of lifeboat or raft, the community of faith begin the only thing that perhaps keeps us afloat.

Whenever we move out of ourselves in mission, whether that is by hammering nails with Habitat for Humanity, adopting a family after a hurricane, volunteering to tutor a child, or even writing a check [yes, writing a check is a form of mission]—there is the possibility, if not the probability of sharing in the cross of Christ.
Our lives are re-oriented. Our priorities are realigned as we make choices based on our faith.

Moses knows something about making choices. We hear about this in our first reading. Moses talks about setting our heart on God. The section we heard from Deuteronomy comes near the end of Moses’ life. He has spent forty years with these people: they are his people and he loves them. He wants them to prosper. He wants them to live. And so he reminds them of what is at stake. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God,” Moses says, “by loving God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his ordinances, then you shall live. But if your heart turns away, then you shall perish.” “Before you [is] life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life.” Love God, obey God and cleave to God.
It turns out these scriptures have quite a lot to say to us at Holy Trinity at the beginning of a new fall. We have choices before us. Some of you perhaps wondering whether this is the church for you. Should you commit? Should you sign on the dotted line? Should you say out loud that this is your church home?

There may be others who are wondering whether it is time to return, to come home again. Well, you can always come home again to the church, and we’re glad to see you.

And perhaps there are those whose church home is elsewhere but there’s something about Holy Trinity that tugs on your heart. There’s a place for you, too. And we want you to feel welcome, whenever you can worship with us.
And then there are the troops; the loyal, the faithful, the tireless (but tired) who are the backbone of this place; the saints. You have choices as well—how do we best carry the cross into the future? What will carrying the cross together look like? How much will it cost? What will we sing and how will we pray along the way?

Moses puts before his beloved and before us, the question of life and death, of blessing and curse. What will it take to keep us moving in the way of life, of health and of wholeness. What will it take for us to avoid the way of compulsion, addiction, and selfishness? It’s not about what church is closest. It’s not about the organist or the preacher or even about the Sunday School—it’s about what kind of community will help us to carry our cross? What kind of community will stand by us? What kind of community will pray for us and accept us, no matter what?

Here at Holy Trinity, the little icon images that show The Stations of the Cross are only hung around the church during the Season of Lent. And while I sometimes wonder how permanent Stations might look along these corridors—in another way, I really like the practice of putting the stations up and then taking them down.

While the Stations are up, the images and characters speak to us and invite us to identify with them, to relate to them, and imagine what their experience was like.

Jesus carries the cross, but he is also supported by others. There is his mother Mary. There is Simon of Cyrene. There is Veronica. There are the strangers who walk along side, ready to support, ready to help, eager to share. And if you look really closely, you’ll begin to see people who look familiar—people from this church family who stand ready to help, to support, and to befriend.

When those Stations of the Cross are taken down, the image of those faithful followers who helped Jesus with his cross remain in our mind’s eye. The characters missing from the room invite us to take their place.

Friends in Christ, as we move into a new Fall and a new program year at church, I invite you to re-commit to the Way of the Cross. May we pray for each other, may we support each other, may we grow in faith with each other, may we walk together in the shadow of the Cross of Christ until we see God face to face.

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Invited

seesaw

Children play on a seesaw constructed through the border between the US and Mexico.

A sermon for September 1, 2019, the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Sirach 10:12-18, Psalm 112 , Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, and Luke 14:1, 7-14

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our Gospel today reminds me of a big dinner several years ago. It was a dinner that was part of a fund-raiser for a charity.  While I supported the cause, bought a ticket, and sent my check, when time came for the event; I pictured what would happen. I imagined the event with an obligatory cocktail time, an awkward time of trying to find a place to sit (with flashbacks to junior high, when some tables have the popular kids and random spaces are left for the misfits), for a likely dinner of mediocre chicken, boiled vegetables, and some kind of overly sweet dessert.  Then, there would be a series of speakers, awards given, a final pitch for us to give more money, and then I’d get home around 10 pm. I had given my money, supported the cause, and wouldn’t be missed. So I didn’t go.

The next day, when I glanced on Facebook, I was surprised to see pictures from the previous night’s dinner.  It turns out that my place card had been at a table with several good friends, an Episcopal bishop, and the president of the organization, who was hoping to welcome me back to New York, after my several years in Washington.  The way I knew this was that a friend with a great sense of humor not only took a picture of my name on the place card and my absence, but then went around the table, holding my name tag between herself and the various table guests.

Of all the various dinner scenarios I had imagined, I hadn’t imagined there might be assigned seats, much less, that it might be a really fun event with wonderful people!

Our Gospel today tells of another banquet.  The places are set, the seats are taken, and people have “found their place,” in more ways than one.  Jesus notices that some of the guests seem to be scrambling (not for bread, but) for the places of honor, and so Jesus speaks to them in what first sounds like common sense. “Don’t always go for the very best seat.  Someone more important than you might show up and then you’ll be embarrassed when you’re asked to move.  Instead, sit in the worst place.  That way, you’ll be honored when you’re invited to sit in a better seat.”

But Jesus keeps on going.  He says (perhaps to the host, perhaps to anyone who will listen), “When you have a banquet, don’t just invite those from whom you expect a reciprocal invitation.  Instead, be radical.  “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  (It doesn’t seem like Jesus is concerned with getting invited back to this particular Pharisee’s house!)

We can easily imagine the look on the Pharisee’s face when he hears these words. Maybe we can even imagine our own reaction if a guest began to lecture us about who should and who should not be invited to the gathering.

But imagine the reaction to those who are not sitting at the table.  Imagine how those words must have sounded to the servants, the cooks, or those who felt like they should sit in the far corners of the room.  Imagine how Jesus’s words of welcome must have sounded as they drifted out the window to the people looking over the hedge, trying to get some leftovers, digging through the trash to see what’s there or what might have been thrown out.  Imagine THEIR reaction.

At this party, at this banquet, Jesus offers both the guests and the uninvited a view of how God sees the world and how God throws a party.

In God’s eyes—at God’s great banquet—(the feast that has already begun, the feast (God willing) that we will one day join)— at that feast, those who exalted themselves in this life are humbled.  “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart [that has been] withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12) And those who were humble find themselves exalted.

In this teaching of Jesus, we are, each of us, confronted—wherever we may be in life, whatever our position, perceived or real.

Some of us might feel a little like I did about the fancy charity dinner I talked about a few minutes ago. We sometimes under-estimate the importance of our showing up—that people might be expecting us, needing us, or wanting us.  Sometimes, folks can confuse humility with humiliation.  In this Gospel, Jesus speaks to those who don’t think they’re invited—whether because they don’t feel good enough, or holy enough, or smart enough, or attractive enough, or talented, or rich, or clever, or… fill in the blank.  He’s saying, “There is a place for you at the table.”  You are enough. You are God’s beloved!  Just as you are—just as you are, in God’s eyes, though perhaps you have forgotten.

But Jesus also address those of us who might be feeling pretty proud of ourselves, who might be feeling as though we enjoy some special blessing from God.  He reminds us, “Don’t assume the best spot has your name on it, just because you’ve worked hard, or shown up early, or put in your dues.  There may be others ahead of you, and you might be surprised.  They may not look like you expect.  They may not speak your language.  They may not dress or act like you.  They may not be “deserving,” in your eyes. But beware: Those who exalt themselves, will be humbled.

Our Gospel, really, is about humility—humility that happens when one lives like Jesus lived.  Humility has to do with being grounded, with being “right sized.”  The word comes from “hummus,” meaning “earthy,” and “earthiness.”  And so, to be humble is to be rooted in the earth, to reflect and recall one’s own humanity.  (From dust we have come, and to dust again we will return.)

What if the church were a place where humility could be practiced, could be taught to the young, modeled by the wise, and developed?  What if the church were a place where humility became something everyone worked at—sometimes with success, but often with failure?

The poet Ann Weems such a church in one of her poems as she begins by wondering, “Where is the church?”  She then answers by suggesting

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious

The church of Jesus Christ
is where home is
is where heaven is
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees.

(excerpted from “The church of Jesus Christ” in Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980)

In other words, the church, is where people risk humility.  The French philosopher and social critic Simone Weil read today’s Gospel and thought of the cross of Christ.  The cross, she suggests, can be understood as a balance, as a lever.  “Heaven coming down to earth raises earth to heaven.”  We lower what we want to lift, she points out.  And so, to lower oneself, raises not only the other person, but can raise the whole other side of the equation.  Weil loves physics and she looked at the cross and its way of humility almost as a kind of spiritual physics.  (Gravity and Grace, London: Ark Paperbacks, 1987 (1952), p. 84.)

The “cross as balance or lever” makes me think of the cross as a kind of seesaw.  And that feels less like a law imposed (“Be humble”) than an invitation extended (“Try on humility, and see where it leads you.”)  The invitation to humility is a little like the one to come and feast at the banquet.

Christ invites us to try the seesaw. Just try it and see what happens.  Try lowering the self so that another can be raised and see what happens.  See how it feels.  See if it changes anything.  See if you notice anything about God.

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don’t judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious. . .

May we have the faith occasionally to get on the seesaw, to lower ourselves, and with grace help each other learn true humility, so that all might join in the feast of God.

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

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A Consuming Flame

AFiery Heart sermon for August 25, 2019, the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. The scriptures are Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last Saturday, I was to lead a service and celebrate Holy Communion at a retreat center in Pennsylvania. I thought I had come fully equipped: the pottery chalice and paten (plate) we use on Sunday nights, Eucharistic wafers and a host, and even gluten-free hosts, wine, and even the various little altar cloths we use with all the funny-sounding names like “purificator” and “lavabo towel.”  But I didn’t bring candles.

It turns out that even though the conference center was built on to the back of a huge church, no candles are allowed in the center.  I asked the receptionist if we might be allowed an exception for the service, and it sent her into a flurry of worry and anxiety.  After she suggested she might look around for some electric candles they used for Christmas, I thanked her and told her not to worry.  “We’ll just be our own fire,” I told her.

For me, somehow the Christmas candles that look nice in a window during the holidays just wouldn’t quite work on an altar. There’s probably some kind of faith equivalent for an electric candle. It’s ok, but not quite the real thing.  It might look like someone whose practice of faith is artificial—it is “turned on” perhaps for Easter and Christmas, but otherwise the batteries can be removed for safekeeping. Or an electric candle faith might be like the kind of person who keeps his or her faith on a shelf. It is so private, so personal, so individual as never to risk – certainly never risking causing a fire, but also never risking helping another warm to the flame, helping another see by the light, helping another burn with the love of God.

But when we’re open to it, that’s what the Holy Spirit does within us. The flame offers warmth, light, and love.

In Isaiah, we’re told just that, that if we can just stop pointing fingers at each other and speaking in (what Isaiah calls) “evil ways,” then all kinds of things are possible. Our “light shall rise in the darkness, and our (previous) gloom, be like the noonday.” Through our faithfulness, others are blessed—they find food and have their needs addressed. Water comes to the parched and keeps on coming. Old divisions are healed; separations overcome. When the fire of God burns within us, it spills over onto others.

In Jesus we see the light of God’s love burning brightly, so brightly that it attracts people from all over. When people see him, they want to follow wherever he’s going, because it seems to lead toward increasing light. When people meet him, they want to become different people, more like him, more like God. And when people feel him, they are healed. That’s what happens in today’s gospel reading with the poor woman who is bent over, who’s been crippled for some eighteen years. Jesus looks at her and refuses to see someone who is limited, someone who’s old, someone who is pitied, someone who doesn’t matter. Instead, he sees her as the child of God that she is. With his whole treatment of her, he loves her. The light of God shines on her like the light of the sun on a seedling, and love (and life itself) calls her to grow taller and stretch high so she can come to touch even God.

Whenever God burns within us there is warmth for others, there is light for others, and there is love. And when we’re open to it, there’s no risk of its being artificial, or temporary. There is no on/off switch. Instead, the fire of God that burns within us is a consuming fire.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds the faithful of the way God’s fire went before the people of Israel, illumining the way, keeping them from stumbling. That same fire burns brightly in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the symbol of our meeting place with God, where the light is thick in its strength, amid innumerable angels feasting and celebrating, with the spirits of all those who have tried to live faithfully finally fulfilled, made holy, and made one with God. This is no flicker of a candle. It’s an eternal flame, so bright that is even gives light to those of us still on earth. We notice its glow. We move in its warmth. We are made holy by its light.

Both last week and the week before, we celebrated the Sacrament of Baptism—last week, with a one-year-old at the 11 AM service, and the week before, with a 30-year-old at the 6 PM service.  We offered them both a little of that heavenly, eternal, consuming fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within them. We baptize with water. We anoint with oil that seals with God’s spirit. And we offer a lighted candle. Some like to bring their candle out on the anniversary of their baptism. Others like to put it away with baptismal keepsakes. Either way, the real message is that God’s light burns within Elle and Alex, and especially from their baptismal day forward, God will continue offering light in the world through them.

There’s a wonderful story that comes from the early years of Christianity, when women and men would go to live in the desert as a means of purifying and strengthening their faith. The desert itself was a bright place, but these people were looking for the light of God. They were looking to increase their own burning to be as much and as pure as possible. These desert fathers and mothers were called abbas and ammas. And so, there’s a story about Abba Lot, who goes to see the older and wiser Abba Joseph.

Abba Lot says, “Abba Joseph, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

And then, Abba Joseph, the old man, stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

May the Holy Spirit quicken the flames that burn within each of us. So that we might be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

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

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Baptized for Action

Water tableA sermon for August 18, 2019, the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, and Luke 12:49-56

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The thing I remember most about my confirmation in the Episcopal Church was the slap.  Some of you may be familiar with the old tradition of after a bishop confirms someone, the bishop sometimes adds a slight slap to the confirmand’s cheek, or simply touches it.  Some say it’s a carry over from when Roman soldiers were conscripted into military service as a reminder to be touch, be reach, there are battles out there to be fought, and every day will not be an easy one.  Especially because I was confirmed in adulthood, had read tons of history about the confirmation rite, my rector told Bishop Taylor, “be sure to give John a good slap. He’ll be disappointed if you don’t.”  Well, you could have heard the slap throughout the church.  Rather than hurt, it made me laugh, so then I had the problem of trying to contain my laughter at one of the holiest moments imaginable.

A few years ago, we were planning for a bishop to visit church and offer confirmations, so I asked the diocesan official helping us plan, “Is he a ‘slapping’ bishop?”  “Certainly not,” was the answer I got, and I was a little disappointed.  In a day like ours when people of faith are called upon to stand up for justice, for goodness, for truth, for kindness, and for love—we could use a few “slapping bishops” leading us forward.

In today’s Gospel Jesus describes some of the results of living faithfully, with our eyes open. Sometimes our being faithful leads to conflict—with the religious establishment, with the state, conflict with one another. Here, I don’t think Jesus is just talking about people who are simply offensive in the way they share their faith, demanding that others see things as they do.  Instead, what he is talking about, I think, is the kind of conflict that comes up in families, among friends and loved ones, and in churches when we disagree because of our faith.

There’s an old joke, “What do you have when there are ten people with twenty different opinions?  An Episcopal Church!  This can especially be the case, the less authoritative and the more democratic our congregation. We may disagree about the spending of money. We may differ about the direction of ministry or the use of particular resources. We might argue about the way God should be worshipped, or even about who should be ordained or consecrated. We disagree about government, about the use of war, about the advances of science and technology. But this is all a part of our living in a real world of faith— a world in which we disagree, a world in which life is not always just about the peace of Christ, but also about the divisions and disagreements that arise along the way to life in Christ.  Our other scriptures today also point to a tough kind of faith, a faith that does not settle for superstition or make-believe.

In our first reading from Jeremiah, there’s a call to honesty. Jeremiah is preaching to the people he’s been called to lead and love, but he’s especially warning the prophets—those who would say they know the direction forward. He reminds them of the difference between a dream and what is lived out in the real world. The dream may inspire, Jeremiah suggests, but never let the dream blind you to the present.

Though Jeremiah’s words are thousands of years old, the same struggle is with most of us who seek to follow God with a faith rooted in history.  How do we call upon the best of our traditions, but be alive to a world that moves and thinks in very different ways?  How do we be people of faith in a culture that has little use for faith?  Some faith traditions respond by buckling down, sticking to the letter of the law and making it all about following the fundamentals.  Others faiths do what they can to attract newcomers with whatever it takes—whether it’s buying tanks of gas for people on a Saturday morning or administering baptism in creative ways.

Our own church, too, struggles to live faithfully between a vision and the real world. The Church of the Holy Trinity, was built with a dream and a vision.  St. Christopher’s House came first, and it was to be a settlement church, a church alive and sensitive to the needs of the neighbors, especially those in need.  That was 120 years ago and since then, there have been times when it must have seemed like that dream was being met, and there are other times when we are painfully aware of the ways in which we fall short.  A part of our living with a dream but in reality might involve our being honest about the ways we are different from the people of 1897.  We are different from the congregation of the 1950s, the 1970s, and even the 1990s.  But we still have a mission and we are still guided by the vision of those who have gone before us.  Jeremiah hears God say, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.” Our calling is that simple and that demanding:  speak God’s word.  Speak God’s work of grace and welcome and forgiveness and healing to one another, to strangers, and stand still long enough to hear it spoken to yourself.

The Letter to the Hebrews names what so many of us, here, have found to be the sustaining, nurturing, and encouraging answer to living in a less-than-perfect world. “We are surrounded by a great a cloud of witnesses.” Our witnesses here include the living and the dead, those who have gone before us, those who loved us and this place who have died.

At Holy Trinity, our cloud of witnesses includes people all over the country—former members, friends, family members, and with increasingly– visitors and guests who are touched by our worship and our ministries.  This cloud of witnesses compels us into new mission opportunities and relationships. In the future we will look very different from the church of 1899 or of 2019, but with faith and energy, will continue to expand and welcome.

This is a GREAT CLOUD, and it is this cloud that gives us the faith as Hebrews says, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, [but] is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

The Gospel today still speaks of hard truth: that sometimes in following Christ, we will find ourselves in conflict. There will continue to be those times when we experience the Body of Christ as broken and divided.  We may argue and seem to work against one another—but that great cloud of witness is still here, around us inspiring, strengthening, and reminding us of our calling.

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

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