Sabbatical 2022: Walking Like a New Yorker (in North Carolina)

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Sabbatical 2022: Yoga & Walking

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Sabbatical 2022: Passing through NYC

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Sabbatical 2022: In the Footsteps of Teresa & John

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Sabbatical 2022: Camino Steps – II

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Sabbatical 2022: Camino Steps – I

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Sabbatical 2022: First Steps

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Drawn out of ourselves

More about El Greco’s Pentecost can be seen HERE.

A brief sermon for the Day of Pentecost.

The scriptures are

Most of you know that today is my last Sunday with you until August. I’ll be going on a two-month sabbatical. While I’ve talked and written about hoping to do a lot of walking during the next few months, while I’m in Spain, I plan to do a lot of LOOKING. Looking at the places where various saints have prayed. Looking at churches. And especially looking at art. 

One of the paintings I hope to see up close is El Greco’s vision of Pentecost. Though I like most of El Greco’s work, when I was taking a class a while back, it was his Pentecost painting that overwhelmed me. I did a report on it for the class, but it’s still inside me. I’m not finished with it yet. Or, perhaps I should say, El Greco’s Pentecost is not finished with me yet. 

The painting portrays the story we celebrate today when the Holy Spirit appeared over the disciples and other followers in flames of fire. El Greco brings Chapter 1 of Acts into Chapter 2, as he places Mary, the mother of Jesus in the center of the painting. She’s there, along with all the disciples, along with others, and as El Greco does in other work, all the figures are elongated, but here, it’s as though the power of the Holy Spirit is drawing them up and out of themselves– to be more alive in the world, to be more faithful, to be more loving, to be more available. 

The Holy Spirit does many things, as we see in today’s Gospel. The Spirit advocates (that is, gives us a kind of second wind when we most need it.). The Holy Spirit blows into our lives with truth and empowers us to tell the truth, even when it’s hard or makes people uneasy. The Holy Spirit teaches, calms, and brings peace. The Holy Spirit answers and abides and leads us into love. 

But especially today, as we do our best to emerge from the pandemic, as we celebrate the baptisms of Wesley and Bennett, and as we pray for one another as we begin this summer season; I’m drawn again to that way in which El Greco shows the Spirit drawing us all out of ourselves. 

On the Day of Pentecost, we heard how the Spirit of God helped people of wildly different backgrounds and cultures, of different languages and tongues suddenly understand each other.  From our standpoint, looking at the differences in our culture, it might seem like understanding others’ languages is the easy part. How does a person advocating gun control understand a member of the NRA?  How does a Pro-choice person have a conversation with a person advocating stricter laws? How does a single person relate to a person who is all about their children? How does a young person just starting out on their own begin to relate to an older person who is nearing the end of life?  This is where we rely on the power of God. This is where we look and listen for the Holy Spirit. This is where we pray, like the early Church, “Come, Holy Spirit. Enlighten. Anoint. Cheer. Teach. Enable. Come, Holy Spirit, fill us with your love.”

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

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Peaceful but not passive

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the difference between peace and passivity. In many situations, I go to the words of the Seraphim of Sarov, the 18th-century Russian saint, who said, “The one who is at peace will save a thousand souls.” I believe that idea, that a person who is at peace (with themselves, with their God, with their experiences– both the good and the bad, at peace with their friends and their enemies) will have a rippling effect of peace on all those they encounter.

But at the same time, as we try to get our heads and hearts around the massacre of children in a school room in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the racially motivated shootings in Buffalo, the week before, and all the various horrific and soul-shaking events of our day– I also think this is no time to be passive. It’s no time to check out, even as I might pay less attention to the ongoing replays on the news.

I want to find peace, and be a person of peace.
But I don’t want any part of being passive.

And so, I continue to follow the Prince of Peace, Jesus, who (remember?) was put to death because his message of love and active peace was too much for the violent forces of his day. God overcame that violence and every violence with the Resurrection, but it is Resurrection power that engages us, that fills us with purpose and direction, that enables us to continue forward with love that refuses to give up.

In the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see this spirit of Christ’s active and confronting peace working in the life of Paul. The Spirit of Christ’s acts within Paul even though Paul seems to be acting primarily out of annoyance.

Paul and Silas and some others were in Philippi, Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they meet a slave-girl who is telling fortunes and making good money for the people who own her.  All of a sudden, she starts following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them.  Paul gets so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he is exasperated.  He is “made miserable” by her) and so he snaps.  But rather than yell at her, rather than hurt her in some way, Paul prays over her.  And then things go from bad to worse.  The girl loses her soothsaying powers and her handlers, her traffickers, really lose their means of exploiting the young women.

These men get the crowd on their side–never difficult to do, by the way. And they all suggest that Paul and his men have broken the peace. Paul and Silas are arrested and beaten up, and thrown into jail.

God disrupts the peace again, in answer to their prayers, and responds with  an earthquake that shakes the jail.  The doors are opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family are converted to God.  

Notice that the prayer of Paul begins with a prayer of annoyance (do something about her, God!), then moves to a prayer of emergency (save us), and finally a prayer that ends with rejoicing, rejoicing among strangers-turned-into friends. 

Is Paul a man of peace? According to God’s perspective, yes, but according to the slave traders and the locals who were more interested in supporting the status quo, Paul is a problem.  The people of Philippi say, “These men are disturbing our city,” and want them gone. But when we find ourselves in places of passivity (where there’s an illusion of peace, but it’s really just a corrupt, lazy, or frozen system) we’re called to move with the disruptive peace and love of Christ.

Martin Luther King, Jr. lived out this kind of strong peace, disruptive peace.

In 1956, the University of Alabama was told by the court that it could no longer discriminate, and it admitted Autherine Lucy. But when Autherine showed up, she was met by violence and protests. The university trustees caved to the mob and asked Autherine to leave.  The newspaper headline that came out afterwards reported that things were quiet in Tuscaloosa, that there were “a few days of peace.” 

In a sermon a few days later, Martin Luther King talked about this “so called” peace.  “It was peace that had been purchased at the price of the capitulating to the forces of darkness. This is the type of peace that all men of goodwill hate. It is the type of peace that is obnoxious. It is the type of peace that stinks in the nostrils of the almighty God.”

In the highpoint of his sermon he spells it all out in words that St. Paul would surely have “amened.”  King said,

If peace means accepting second class citizen ship I don’t want it.

If peace means keeping my mouth shut in the midst of injustice and evil, I don’t want it.

If peace means being complacently adjusted to a deadening status quo, I don’t want peace.

If peace means a willingness to be exploited economically, dominated politically, humiliated and segregated, I don’t want peace.

In a passive non-violent manner we must revolt against this peace.

Jesus says in substance, I will not be content until justice, goodwill, brotherhood, love yes, the kingdom of God are established upon the earth. This is real peace. Peace is the presence of positive good.

Finally, never forget that there is an The inner peace that comes as a result of doing God’s will.

“When peace becomes obnoxious,” preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, March 18, 1956?

The Hymnwriter Brian Wren develops this idea of Martin Luther King, and bases a hymn on Micah 4:3.  Wren includes a few lines about what peace is NOT, and then he imagines the kind of peace of Christ:

Tell them that peace is
the shouting of children at play,
the babble of tongues set free
the thunder of dancing feet,
and a [parent’s] voice singing

Tell them that peace is
the hauling down of flags,
the forging of guns into plows,
the giving of fields to the landless,
and hunger a fading dream.

Peace . . . is a song
playing to the pipes of freedom,
swinging to the sound of love.

(Brian Wren, “Say no to peace,” Words © 1986 Hope Publishing Company)

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays for us, in an intimate expression of his love for each one of us, and for all of humanity. We are his sisters and brothers, we are his family, his beloved.  And yet, he knows the world, well, and admits to his Father, “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17: 26).

A pandemic, a struggling economy, no clear leadership in any sector of our society– it’s a lot.  But we have each other. We have wise ones, like those celebrating major birthdays in our community. We have young ones, like those who are giving their time and faith to our community. And we even have the very young, as we look forward to two baptisms next Sunday.

We have each other, we have the Church that spreads throughout the world, and we have Christ who prays for us, and within us, and promises never to leave us comfortless, but to fill us with his spirit.

May the powerful, disruptive, new life of Christ’s peace be ours. Amen.

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With the Current of God’s Healing

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

On Friday, I was walking in Central Park, and made a stop at one of my favorite spots.  I’ve talked about it before, but it continues to feel like a kind of centerpiece to the park, for me. Bethesda Fountain.

At about 72nd Street, in the middle to the park, at the edge of the Lake, it’s the focal point of Bethesda Terrace. It was designed by Emma Stebbins in 1868, and it depicts today’s story of the healing fountain in Jerusalem. Bethzatha or Bethesda, was thought to get its healing properties because angels would dip down and stir the waters up.  

I love that Bethesda Fountain (like our own church) is one of those secret winks of the Holy Spirit in New York City. It’s right there in plain sight, but if you pause and reflect, there are much deeper spiritual meanings. Just as Bethesda Fountain celebrated the wonders of the Croton Reservoir, which brought healing waters to the people of NYC in common everyday ways, so often, healing is right in our midst, if we open ourselves to it.

Today’s Gospel suggests a number of points about healing, about our role in healing, and even the place of faith in healing. It says something to those who are waiting for healing. It speaks to those who long for healing but can’t see a way forward. And it speaks to those of us who perhaps are the picture of health and might think a sermon on healing might only be for the sick.

First, the word to those who wait. The scriptures are filled with stories of Jesus healing, and even of the other disciples offering healing. Prophets sometimes heal, and one woman is healed simply by touching Jesus. If we’re not careful, it can seem like healing from God is instantaneous, like the faith healers we might read about or see on television or in movies. Notice that the man in today’s story had been ill for thirty-eight years. In another Gospel (Mark’s) a woman is healed who has been sick for twelve years. These stories remind us that healing doesn’t always come quickly. Healing doesn’t come with the right prayer, the right amount of faith, the right religious experience. Healing comes in time.

The story of the man at the pool of Bethesda speaks of one who persists, who continues, to carries on—each day, each year, waiting for healing. But this particular story also suggests that the route to healing (for this man) has perhaps been right there all along.

Secondly, there are those who look for healing, but overlook what is right in front of them. I’m reminded of the Old Testament story of Naaman, the military commander who had leprosy. He heard that the prophet Elisha was a man of wisdom and healing, so he went to see him. Elisha told Naaman to do something very simple and Naaman laughed at him. Naaman felt different from others, special from others, unique in his own illness. But Elisha knew what would bring healing and told him, but Naaman balked at first. It seemed too easy, too simple, too obvious. It’s not the calm waters that offer healing, after all, but the ones stirred up with holy healing.

The person Jesus meets at the Pool of Bethzatha is right there by the water, but he has all sorts of reasons for not stepping in: “others get in before me,” “there’s no one to help me in,” or who knows what other reason he might give.

This is like the person who limps in pain but whose doctor assures them that if they simply had a knee replacement, the pain would go away. It’s like the person who squints and misreads, when properly made glasses would solve the problem. It’s like the person who wrestles with an addiction and convinces herself or himself that their situation is unique, when there are twelve step groups that offer healing and new life. Sometimes healing is at hand, but we find reasons to delay or not ask for help, or remain just beyond arm’s reach.

And finally, there are those who wish for healing, but don’t know where to start. They need a little help reaching the source of healing. But in both cases, it might not be an angel from heaven who stoops to stir the waters, but it might be me or you. It might be another person—whether healthy and strong, or perhaps someone undergoing their own pathway into healing.

I’ve mentioned before how in the Hebrew scriptures, there’s often some ambiguity around the root word that is used both for “angel” and “messenger.” But I think that’s also a theological mystery—sometimes angels are ordinary people, coming at the right time, offering just the right word, offering a helping hand, or perhaps just being present, in silence.

As majestic and beautiful as the angel is on Bethesda Fountain, it might be that you or I are called to be the angel who prepares the waters for healing, who helps connect one with that water, or who helps to carry a person closer to the source of healing.

Often, when a person needs healing, the professional pastoral care giver (the priest) is not the most helpful person. If one is undergoing chemotherapy, often the most helpful person is another person who has gone through similar treatment. A person who faces having a heart procedure will often be helped by talking with someone who has already had a similar procedure. And certainly, the twelve-step recovery movement shows the wisdom and effectiveness of recovering people helping others to recover. And often the most healing person is someone to walk along side, not offering advice, not even talking so much. The great priest and writer Henri Nouwen describes this sort of person as a “wounded healer.” He writes,

To enter into solidarity with a suffering person does not mean that we have to talk with that person about our own suffering. Speaking about our own pain is seldom helpful for someone who is in pain. A wounded healer is someone who can listen to a person in pain without having to speak about his or her own wounds…. We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole beings. That is healing.” The Wounded Healer, 1979

Who knows when, where, or in what we might be called upon to be an angel of healing, an agent of God’s healing; but I pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to stir the holy water and to show us how to help stir up the spirit of healing and health.

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

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