Dodging Distractions

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 try to be careful when I’m walking on the sidewalk around scaffolding. I’m not so much afraid that something might fall from above. I’m more afraid that I might not pay attention and walk into a pole. That happened to a former parishioner of mine from another church.

When I saw him in midtown, he had what looked like a black eye. I asked him if he was ok, and he assured me he was. But then, laughing, he said, “It’s probably good I ran into you. I probably need to confess something.” Well, OK, I said. Do you want to come by the church, or have coffee, or what works? And he said, “Oh, no, nothing that formal– just right now. You see, I was walking down the street and I was staring at this beautiful woman. All of a sudden, “BAM”– I walked into a scaffolding pole.” We both laughed, and I suggested that perhaps he was already living his penance… but I’ve never forgotten that black eye and use it as a warning to walk carefully. Stay focused. Don’t get distracted.

Distractions get the best of all of us sometimes, don’t they? Whether it’s in the middle of a project, while riding on a bus or the subway, while talking to a friend, or maybe (if not especially) when we’re trying to pray. Perhaps we are distracted now—the sounds outside, the instant messages or pings on a smart phone or watch, the person across the room, the light coming through the windows, unfinished conversations, things left undone.

The first reading this morning also has something to say about distractions. From the Wisdom of Solomon, there is talk about the ungodly—but when you think about them, they’re really just people who are suffering from a major case of distraction. Not only do they enjoy the good gifts of God, they become distracted by them and begin to base their lives upon it. The ungodly become so distracted by their inflated sense of power and importance that they begin to grasp for more, and they oppress those who have less.

Greatness is a distraction. Importance is a distraction. The past can be a distraction. Dwelling too much in the future, can be a distraction.

I had new insight into this morning’s Gospel a few weeks ago, when I visited family in NC. One night we went to see my nephew and his family and see my great nephew, 2 years and 4 months old. I had planned to ask my nephew about his work, my niece-in-law’s work and family, possibly sneak in a subtle question about baptism… you know. Also, I think we all had some intention of talking about plans around Christmas. But there was not time or space or energy for that—because a two-year-old was in charge.

Though children are seen and heard in ways today that they were not in Jesus’s day, I think Jesus was trying to focus his disciples in a similar way.

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus has been trying to tell the disciples something vitally important, but the disciples were distracted. Jesus and the disciples were traveling and Jesus lays it all out to them as he says, “The Son of man will be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise again.” But the disciples aren’t really listening. They are distracted. They are thinking about–among other things–their own futures. They’re anticipating Jesus coming into power, maybe Jesus going into Jerusalem and taking over, and so the disciples are busy wondering about which of them will be the greatest. Which of them will have the responsible job? Which of them will be noticed, will be thanked, will be rewarded?

And then Jesus takes a little child—probably much like any other child—helpless, vulnerable, and needy. And he says “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not [only] me but [also] the one who sent me.”

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s hard for me to live in the present, in this very moment, without being distracted by either the past or the future. I love the past (as I have reconstructed it, of course).

Dwelling in the past, I can hold on to old resentments, continuing to build the case to justify myself. I can replay heroic actions, like watching a videotape of me, again and again and again.

Or I live in the future. Maybe you do that too—we live in that place where we finally have the right job, where we finally meet the right person, when we finally have the right apartment or house, or ——- you can fill in the blank.

When I think of my own tendency to be so easily distracted, I can begin to understand some of what the disciples must have been dealing with. Jesus dispels the distractions of the disciples with simple words. The drama of the past, the endless possibilities of the future all crumble as Jesus says, probably very quietly: “To be first, one must be the last of all. To be first, one must be the servant of all.”

So often, Jesus calls his disciples and us to pay attention. Notice. Jesus calls into the present, the concrete, the real—that’s why so often in his stories, Jesus uses the salty sea water underneath, the fresh, clean water from a well, the mud of the earth that becomes healing balm, the freshly caught fish. The bread, the wine, the water, the blood.

We have a song in our hymnal that sums up this ministry of prayerful presence, hymn simply called, “Now.” It sings,

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,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century nun and mystic, knew the overwhelming force of distraction. As she put it in the Way of Perfection, she felt it her calling to offer a little guidance to those with “souls and minds so scattered that they are like wild horses no one can stop.” And so she offers a kind of prayer, a method of prayer, if you will, that has been called the practice of “recollection.” Teresa reminds us that the most important aspect of prayer—whether it’s at the beginning, it’s distracted and frustrated middle, and even at its ending—is to remember that God is near. God is very, very near. It’s that simple and it’s that difficult: God is near.

We have prayer. We have people. We have nature. We have NOW.

Jesus wants us to know fully and clearly what the Gospel of Mark sometimes casts as a great secret—Jesus will die and rise again. We, on the other side of Easter, know this not as a secret but as a truth to be proclaimed throughout the world, even in New York.
Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Even with all our distractions, we, as his body in the world, already have his life in us. In him, we die and rise again, in faith, in life, and in life eternal.

May God speak to us even in our distractions that we may be brought again and again to the unity that is love eternal.

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The Humble Power of the Cross

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:

We’ve been hearing a lot of 9/11 stories and memories over the past few days, and maybe we’re tired of them. I’ve been thinking about my own 9/11 experience—less as a revisiting of the tragedy of that day, but more as I reflect on what helped me to move forward.  It has to do with religion. 

While I try to be open and supportive of people who are turned off by what they think is “religion,” and prefer to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” on 9/11 and since, I have needed some of the so-called and imagined “entrapments” of religion.

I needed the color and the smell. At the church where I worked on 9/11, we had altar cloths that were purple and black. They’re used for mourning, and they communicate both a profound sadness AND an exquisite beauty what can’t always be put into words. The lingering smell of incense worked like it has for thousands of years—to cover the smells of the world with something from another world and time.

I needed old-fashioned prayers that had been used by people in horrible circumstances long before me. Especially as I had no words to describe what I was seeing, or hearing, or feeling, I gave thanks for words of the Prayer Book to remind me of the historic faith and root me in God.

And finally, I needed the Cross. The cross is perhaps the only symbol that can so fully express the depravity, the evil, the violence of humanity; while at the same time, expressing the power of God’s love to redeem and resurrect.

September 14 is known as Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day in which the Church reflects on the cross. Often the themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, and 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.

Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

And so, 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.

We didn’t read from the Letter of James, the Epistle reading appointed for today, but James reminds us of how dangerous the “tongue” can be. He writes, “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.”

What we say and how we speak is a part of taking up our cross. 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.

The Letter of James reminds us that “taking up our cross” involves loving. Taking up our cross involves loving. Taking up one’s cross is not just an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. 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 following 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. We can sometimes cling to it and say, “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

But that’s what we see Peter trying to do in today’s Gospel.

Peter is frustrated with what appears to be Jesus’s plan with the Cross. 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. Peter doesn’t see, at first, that the way forward has 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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Renewing Compassion, Recovering from Fatigue

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:

Many of you are familiar with the organization called Episcopal Relief and Development, known as ERD, for short. It offers financial and human support for people and communities who have been hit by disaster of some kind, or whose basic living conditions create a scenario of ongoing disaster. The interesting thing about ERD is that its programs and resources are only activated once a local bishop asks.  This means that resources go to people on the ground, in their community, who know what the needs are.

After the August 14 earthquake hit Haiti, we included links to ERD on our church website and in our parish newsletters a link to a way to help Haiti.

But then came Tropical Storm Henri, so we adjusted the link to simply refer to ERD’s site for donations. 

We’ve been praying for, watching, and reading about fires in the western part of the United States.

We’ve been praying for the people of Afghanistan and all the people who have served and tried to help that country through the years.

Over the last few days, we’ve been drying out after the rains and storms from and Hurricane Ida, but also mourning and trying to process the deaths and damage done by flooding.

And this week, whether we’re ready or not, many are reminding us that it has been 20 years since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

The theologian Karl Barth is credited with suggesting that a faithful person should begin every day with a newspaper in one hand and a Bible in the other. But Barth died in 1968. Newspapers and the news cycle were very different back then. He was not bombarded with nightmare and tragedy, with violence, and heartache every waking hour. If we put down the newspaper, it didn’t jump up at him on his phone or computer, or in a doctor’s lobby, an airport terminal, or a taxicab.

If we’re feeling a little tired, if perhaps we would like nothing more than a weekend free of worries, it would be understandable. 

The term, “compassion fatigue” came into use in the 1990s to try to name the kind of burnout that can be experienced by caregivers– not only professional ones, but also volunteers, and those who sometimes feel overwhelmed by their own sense of compassion.  What happens, is that as emotional energy pours out of a person for others, or even for animals, one eventually is empty.  And so one can begin to be angry, or depressed, to want to isolate, to question the usefulness of one’s work, and even to develop physical ailments that basically take on the stress of others. Perhaps we hear those words from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear!,” but we hear them only faintly, as from a long, disinterested place far away.

Though I’m on risky ground applying 20th century psychological concepts to Jesus, I can’t help but notice a little compassion fatigue on the part of Jesus in the first part of today’s Gospel.

Jesus is in Tyre, a long way from home.  He’s moved beyond the familiar, out of those towns where people remember his mother and his father. He is in a northern area that today, would be in a part of Lebanon.  Though Jesus seems to be trying to get away for a little while, no sooner does he get to this out-of-the-way place, that he meets a woman who asks for his help. 

Mark the Evangelist goes out of his way to show that this woman is foreign to Jesus. Different language. Different religious background, different people. She begs Jesus to cast out a demon from her little girl. But Jesus shrugs her off, repeating what must have been an expression of his day, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It probably sounded as rude to her as it does to us. Jesus here implies that the “children” are the children of Israel, God’s chosen people. Jesus understands his own mission (to the extent that he understands it) as being for Israel, for the Jews—not for others. And so, this woman’s problems are simply outside his purview, beyond his job description. He’s tired. He’s already healed and taught and been faithful, and just doesn’t have any more to give.

But the woman snaps back, “It may not be fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs— but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.”

And then something shifts for Jesus.  It’s as though he’s awakened and given a second wind of the Spirit. I wonder if Jesus didn’t laugh at the women’s sharpness. But through this interaction and the power of God, the little girl who is at home, is healed. And Jesus is suddenly present in a new way.

By the time of the second part of the Gospel, Jesus has had time to think about this encounter with the Syrophoenician woman and the healing of her daughter, and Jesus is more careful. He’s what many would call in our day, “more mindful.”

What can we do, if we’re feeling a little bit of compassion fatigue?  There are lots of things, and a number of them have to do with taking care of oneself and practicing appropriate boundaries. Now, I realize this can sound a bit like the “wellness” column from the Times, but it’s also deeply biblical and deeply faithful to make sure that oneself is grounded, connected to God, and as full of God’s Spirit as possible, before being of any real use to God and the world. The Quaker writer Parker Palmer notes well, “Self-care is never a selfish act – it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.” (Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation)

Jesus returns to more familiar territory in Galilee, and some people bring him a man who has a speech impediment. But notice the sorts of things Jesus does.  

First, Jesus sets boundaries.  He takes the man away from the crowd, so there’s a quiet place. They can talk. They can relate. They can be present with each other and God without the pressure of the crowd.

Next, Jesus gets grounds himself and gets physical and particular. He embodies his faith and healing energy by using touch: He puts his fingers in the man’s ears, he spits and touches the man’s tongue.  No social distancing here–but that’s not the point. The point is that Jesus is grounded, right there with the man, as human as the other is, and yet, both, available and open to the healing power of God.

Then, Jesus strengthens his connection with God. He prays. Jesus prays, “Ephphatha,” be opened. In so doing, Jesus is connecting with God, the source of healing and strength and love. Jesus is acknowledging his own limitations, and being clear that if healing comes, it comes from God and God alone. Some have named the idea that we can do it all ourselves, that we MUST do it all ourselves, that we have all the responsibility and things won’t happen if we don’t do them—this is a kind of “functional atheism.” We live and work and stress out as though God were NOT.  But here, Jesus remembers that it is God who can do all things. And guess what– the man speaks and begins to hear.

So let’s review.  If you’re feeling tired of all the pain in the world—close by and far away, if you’re noticing that you’re getting impatient with other people’s needs,

Check your boundaries.
Get grounded.
Connect with God.
Be renewed.

There are a number of stories and sayings about the 18th century Polish Rabbi Zusya.  My favorite is from a story Zusya told his congregation.

One day Rabbi Zusya stood before his congregation and he said,  When I die and have to present myself before the celestial tribunal, they will not ask me,  ‘Zusya why were you not Moses?’ because I would say ‘Moses was prophet and I am not.’

They will not say ‘Zusya, why were you not Jeremiah?’ for  I  would say ‘Jeremiah was a writer, and I am not.’

And they will not say ‘Why were you not Rabbi Akiba?’ for I would tell them, ‘Rabbi Akiba was a great teacher and scholar and I am not.’

But then they will say ‘Zusya why were you not  Zusya?’ and to this I will have no answer.

Karl Barth is probably right to imagine a faithful person with the news in one hand and the Bible in the other, but sometimes, out of faith, we need to put down one or the other, and breathe. Check boundaries. Get grounded. Connect with God, and be renewed.

Especially when our hearts are heavy, may the Spirit remind us of Jesus who says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11: 28-29.


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Living from the Inside Out

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:

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks to any who would be tempted to place outward appearances over inward realities.

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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Christmas in August

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:

If you think today’s Gospel is sounding a little familiar, it’s not the heat and humidity that is taking its toll. It’s that the Gospels for weeks, now, all seem to talk about bread. Maybe it’s because the Church thinks people are coming and going during the summer weeks, so we’d better have a lot of Sundays that suggest a similar point, to make sure everyone hears the message. Or maybe it’s because it’s picnic season, and we might relate better to the stories of Jesus’s feeding of the thousands, and then the disciples remembering that Holy Picnic, the way we might fondly recall a family get-together, an outing, or a special event that included food. 

Or, maybe it’s because the Church wants us to celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer.

What do I mean by that?  Well, Christmas is the primary celebration of the Incarnation, of the birth of Jesus, of the “Word made flesh.”  In late November or December, we lead up to Christmas, and then the Epiphany invites us to reflect on what Christmas (or the Incarnation) means for us.  And so–I’m wondering–if the scriptures are inviting us to have a little Christmas in August.

What made me think of this is my reading a book by the Paulist priest, Father Tom Ryan. And a quotation by Fr. Ryan made me think about the way I often speak of Jesus. I tend to write, and pray, and speak about “God coming into the world in the form of Jesus Christ.”  You and I know what I mean by that, but my phrasing is problematic, if we think about it theologically. God was already in the world. The Word was already in the world, just like the Gospel of John proclaims; just like Genesis implies.

And here’s where Fr. Ryan helps me.  He writes:

It is not so much that the Word entered the world; it is rather that the Word became flesh. In the Incarnation, Jesus in his flesh took the world as part of himself. The world quite literally became the body of God. Since God is identified with and discovered within this bodiliness, this fleshiness, this materiality, this sensuality, we have no right to dismiss the world as some second-rate practice field for the real life in heaven. The Incarnation states that there is no practice and nothing is second-rate. Life in this world is the life of God. (Thomas Ryan, CSP, Prayer of hearty and Body: Meditation and Yoga as Christian Spiritual Practice. Paulist Press, 1995.)

And so, it means that as people of faith, we should take our bodies seriously, and treat the bodies of others as sacred vessels. It means we should treat all of creation as potentially revealing the presence of God.

And it explains how when we eat blessed bread, we are eating the body of Christ, the life of God, given for us. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

These bready passages we read and reflect on in summer are to remind us of flesh-and-blood existence of God, of the giftedness of our bodies, the mixture of material with spiritual and spiritual with material, and to invite us to be more open to encountering God in ourselves, in others, and in the hear-and-now. Merry Christmas on this August 15.

But August 15 also coincides with another reminder of the Incarnation. In our tradition, the Prayer Book Calendar simply lists August 15 as Saint Mary the Virgin, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics know it as the Assumption of Mary, imagining her death as being mysteriously taken up into the fullness of God’s love, and the Orthodox know it as the Dormition, of Mary’s “falling asleep.”

But just like the Virgin Mary did at the Wedding of Cana, and at Calvary, and in art history– the point her commemoration on August 15 is to remind us of the Incarnation. The Word became Flesh– by fleshy, noisy, painful, human means through Mary.

Beverly Gaventa is a Presbyterian theologian who teaches at Baylor, and she suggests at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.

Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. And that’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.

And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. We have all probably seen in icons and art the classic posture showing the Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. Often, Mary is pointing very subtly to Jesus, as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”  (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

The Christmas Message is Rejoice: God is with Us.  
The Message of Mary is Rejoice: Christ will show you the way. 
The Message of Jesus is Rejoice: Eat and drink my body, my presence, my strength, my faith, and your own body will be brought to God in this life and in the next.

As the Psalmist sings so beautifully, “Taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are they who trust in him!” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Raised Up (In this life and the next)

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:

When I read or hear today’s Gospel, I think of the hymn, “I am the Bread of Life.”  It’s one of those hymns in which the words don’t quite match the music of each stanza and it can feel like a challenge to sing, if you’re new to it.  But by the time we reach the refrain, everybody’s joining in with, “And I will raise them up, and I will raise them up, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

My colleagues and friends at a previous church used to joke with me as they observed that I usually managed to be away on a particular Sunday in late summer. They thought I was trying to avoid that hymn, because I would often grumble about it, whenever we sang it. But it wasn’t the hymn I minded. I love the hymn. The problem, for me, was in that place, where the organist would try to make this folksy, popular hymn from the 1960s into a concert piece with all the stops of a giant organ working – almost against any hope of the people hearing themselves sing. But make no mistake—I like the hymn, and I love it’s message.

The hymn’s message is important because it helps us, as Christians, express one of the central tenets of our faith: God raised up Jesus and God will raise us up. Resurrection is the beginning and the end of our faith. It’s the core of what it means to be a Christian. In the history of the Church, belief in the resurrection has often been the test for admission to Baptism, for ordination, for being considered a true follower of Jesus Christ. But sometimes the resurrection of Jesus has become a kind of litmus test for orthodoxy, and that misses part of the point, I think.

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, he 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—sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually. He raises up the sick and the wounded. He raises up those who are brought down low by others. The Blessed Virgin Mary sings of this in her song, proclaiming what God has already done for her and for others: “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. The Church teaches 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.

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 God’s intention to raise up all things and 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. This is what St. Paul teaches mystically [Maximus writes] when he says, ‘…that in the ages to come [God] might display the overflowing richness of His grace’ (Eph. 2:7).”(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, it’s Elijah who gets raised up—but not in such a dramatic way as at the end of his life. Here, the “raising” can almost be overlooked.  If we were to read more widely in First Kings, we would recall how the prophet Elijah, several times, got to the point of almost giving up. He had been doing his best, but it didn’t feel like it counted for anything. The most serious threat had become real: that because of his prophecies, Jezebel, the wife of the king, was after his head. No place was safe. People weren’t listening, and so, in readings like today’s, Elijah begins to feel sorry for himself. He prays to God to take away his life. And then he goes and sits under tree and falls asleep.

But an angel wakes him up. Who knows if this angel is a winged thing come out of heaven, or a woman from down the street with something to eat, or a child who comes by and knows where there’s good food. Something stirs Elijah. Something rouses him that is of God, and so it is an angel, a messenger of God who says to Elijah in some way or another, “Get up. Eat. God will provide.” Elijah is raised up by God, or rather, by God’s messenger.

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.

Last year, about this time, we had reopened the church for about a month, and we were extremely careful to keep our masks on, throughout. Because of this, it was sometimes hard for me to recognize certain people. One day, after the service, a woman was lingering in the pews, so I stopped by. I wasn’t sure I knew her, so I introduced myself.  She looked at me with tears in her eyes, and said, “thank you.”  “Thank you so much for being here.”  I again said my name, and then she said hers and explained that over the summer, it had felt like her life had fallen apart. A parent had died. A relationship had ended. Her friends had moved out of the city, and her workplace was having trouble coordinating remote work. She had just moved in, across the street from the church on Saturday, was worn out, and fell asleep. She woke up on Sunday morning and noticed the doors open, so she came in, and she was dazzled by the space, the music, the feeling, and a word of hope she heard that morning. She received Communion for the first time in years, and it fed her.

This worshipping community, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, raised her up that day, for at least another day, another season, and time for a new start.  Her life has gotten busy and full again, but she occasionally stops in to reconnect and to add her part in the life of God’s spirit to raise up.

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 (and Faith) for Tomorrow

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:

There’s an online class I’ve been flirting with taking.  It’s offered through Harvard’s free online program and it’s called, “Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science.” It covers such things as how heat works with various textures and amounts, how to vary ingredients and temperatures, depending on weather conditions, and even how some of the stranger food creations – foams and gels and such—are made.

There’s a big part of me that feels like if I just had the right information, took the right course, or read the right book, I would never make mistakes in the kitchen. Nothing would ever be burned. Nothing underdone and no strange reactions. I would know exactly what to do if the room were especially humid, or dry, if the oven cooked fast or slow, if the quality of the ingredients varied, and other such things. I like to imagine that, armed with information and knowhow; I could control the outcome and ensure the results.

I would not do very well in a world with manna: that food we hear about in the reading from Exodus, that mystery referred to in the Psalm.

Manna was that strange flakey stuff that God gave in the wilderness. It was good one day at a time. There were no assurances that it might come again. But you couldn’t save it. It was daily manna and like chicken salad at a summer picnic, if it weren’t eaten right away, it would spoil. Left unnoticed, manna became wormy. Put it in the sun, manna would melt. This “manna” was food, but it was also more than food, because manna was meant to be consumed with a side of faith. And more than a side of faith, really—it took ALL one’s faith to be receptive to God’s care. 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 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 part of what we’re praying for. It’s a reaffirmation that no science class, no proficiency in the kitchen, no steady source of food or income can sustain–ultimately. We need bread not just for right now, but for tomorrow, too.

Biblical scholars like to point out that the grammar of the Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for tomorrow, praying for bread of the future. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, reflects on this as he connects manna with the bread of Holy Communion:

“…Some people in the early church understood [this phrase from the Lord’s Prayer] 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

Today’s Gospel picks up just after Jesus’ miracle with the loaves and fishes, his feeding of the five thousand (that we talked about last Sunday). But this week, people are still hungry. It’s not so much that they want to eat more, but they want to see more—more magic, more signs, more proof that Jesus is God, come to meet them. Jesus lays their hunger bare when he tells them, “don’t look to me to feed you. At least not the way you’re expecting it. You’re looking, but not seeing. Look deeper, for the food that endures for eternal life.”

But the people persist. They remind Jesus that God gave the people of Israel that sign of the manna in the wilderness, so can’t Jesus give them something miraculous like that, something really convincing?

But 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.”

If we stay in relationship with Christ, we are fed, spiritually and in every other way. But often, the spiritual equivalent of junk food is easier. We grab a spiritual nutrition bar and run. Stepping away from the table of the Lord, we drift away. And every relationship changes a little with distance. It’s often like with an old friend, we forget to return the call, to send the note, to respond to the email. And so time passes, and we get disconnected. We’re surprised when big news happens to our friend and we haven’t been a part of it, until we stop to realize that we’ve drifted, we’ve lost touch.

I recently heard a long distance runner interviewed on television. They asked the runner how much water she would drink and whether it mattered when she drank it along the way. She explained that she had to be careful to drink water before she actually felt thirsty. Otherwise, if she waited until she was thirsty, it would be too late, and her body would already be somewhat dehydrated, and she would be operating as less than capacity.

Isn’t the spiritual life a little like a marathon, in that way? If we wait until we notice the absence of Christ, if we wait until we feel God’s distance, then it takes a lot more to feel the strength, the consolation, the encouragement, the faith, we may need. And so, the Church invites us to eat and drink regularly, at this table, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

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.

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. 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?

Jesus reminds us of the Communion that matters more than any other—the union with him, through his Body and Blood. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

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

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Sharing the Food and the Feast

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:

Elisha and Jesus make it look easy, don’t they? Presented with a hungry mob, they each open the equivalent of their kitchen cabinet and see it as mostly bare. But then, something happens. There are a few odds and ends, and with the intervention of God, enough is made.  Not only enough, but plenty—with leftovers.

Too many people have spent too much time during the pandemic, doing the first part of that—looking into the pantry and finding it bare. Over the last year, we saw on the news and in our city the long lines of people that looked like pictures from the Great Depression—people desperate for food for themselves and their families. Even as the city reawakens and many businesses have reopened, food pantries report about 30 % more people needing food than before the pandemic. It’s estimated that some 2 million people in the state of New York don’t have enough to eat, and one in five children go hungry. 

And so, as we gather around this Holy Table for the Bread of Heaven that sustains us spiritually, we don’t pretend for a minute that food comes easy or obviously.  God wants to make a feast and for there to be leftovers, but sometimes that includes us, as well.

In today’s version of the feast of the multitudes, it seems like 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 extends an invitation. 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 Christ that the people would be fed.
Then invitations go out to enlist the help of others.
And finally, the 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.)

The story of Jesus feeding the multitudes invites us to get involved:

  • To share in the vision that all would be fed. That all would get enough to eat physically, and that all would be fed spiritually.
  • To accept the invitation of Christ and to invite others. Jesus doesn’t make the miracle all by himself. It takes Andrew to look around and see the kid with loaves and fish, and it takes the kid’s industry and willingness to share.
  • It takes prayer—the prayers of Christ that all would be fed, and our prayers joining to make more, raise the spirit, and finally for us to remember that even though we have work to do, we are sharing in what is ultimately the work of God.

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.

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 Holy Table and the various tables we might make holy as we use them 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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Reconciled through Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

Yesterday’s memorial service for Dudley Stone brought together two worlds: the world of the parish church and the world of the theatre. To most of us, that combination of people seemed right and natural. But this has not always been the case with the Christian Church. Though theatre as we know it grew largely out of medieval cathedral communities and their dramatic and humorous re-telling and ad-libbing of biblical stories, the church often was at odds with theatre and acting.—both of which were thought to be corrupting influences.

Here in New York, St. Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church is nicknamed the Actor’s Chapel, our own Church of the Transfiguration since 1870, when the Little Church graciously hosted a funeral for a notorious actor. Often joining us through Zoom Evening Prayer from St. Stephen’s Church in London is the Rev. Lindsay Meader, who is Lead Theatre Chaplain for the Diocese of London and Senior Chaplain of Theatre Chaplaincy UK.

Whether we think of the theatre world versus the church world, or some other possible opposing group:  Democrats/Republicans, Vegans/Meat-eaters, Vaccinated/Unvaccinated, and that deadly rivalry: Yankees/Mets…. We seem to have a tendency to spot “the OTHER.” Having diagnosed “the other” asserts our own identity, and the longer we go in that direction, the more solid are the walls we build – whether real or imagined.

Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians gets to the point pretty directly, though Paul writes in terms that may sound strange to us today. Paul 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 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 though 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. There was the Ethiopian Eunoch, 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 has to do with new Jewish converts who felt like, since they were Jewish (circumcised), they gained 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.

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.

While the media and perhaps a bit of animal instinct in us easily feels threatened by those who are different or who appear to be on opposite sides of an issue, sometimes the information is skewed. Several days ago, an opinion piece in the New York Times by a health care policy professor at Harvard points this out. Dr. Anupam B. Jena points out that while “While the politicization of the pandemic is undeniable, the focus on it has obscured a simple truth: Everyone has made sacrifices, no one has been spared, and the shared experience of the last year and a half has been sorely underappreciated relative to the differences.”  (, accessed July 17, 2021).

The data also suggests that while there are some large disparities that fall along political lines — in vaccinations, self-reported mask use and closures of businesses and schools — people’s actual behavior may not have been as polarized. What people were willing to take risks for during the pandemic have been quite similar.

He goes on to explain the enormous number of people who gathered – even at the height of the pandemic—to celebrate birthdays. Other big issues like whether adolescents should be vaccinated show differences among political affiliation and geography, the differences are not always as great as the media suggests.

There is a temptation to be with those who agree with us. The new Viking Cruise commercials shown on PBS offers its message, “welcome back to the world,” that their trips provide the opportunity “connect with other like-minded people.”  While we all might feel those urges from time to time—can you image a more boring world:  one in which everyone agreed with all of your opinions, assumptions, prejudices, and values?

In today’s Gospel, even Jesus seems to want to cordon off the faithful, and pull them away. It’s a little bit like here, as in a few other places, Jesus suggest, “these are the ones to whom I’m called to minister among. These and no more.” 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, Jesus understands that God’s love is for everyone, and that there is no end to the wideness of God’s mercy, to the fullness of God’s fellowship.

Whether it is the worldwide Christian Church 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 or even a theater person! 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.

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

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The Sense of Faith

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:

As we all know, one of the strangest effects of COVID-19 has been the way the virus often affects the senses of smell and taste. One study has suggested that almost 80 per cent those with COVID lose their sense of smell or taste.

Because of COVID, or perhaps just because of this time of year, our senses can feel a bit heightened, can’t they? There have been days this spring, when it was almost overwhelming to walk through the park because some of the trees were so fragrant—almost to be stinky. We’ve been hearing firecrackers, and will hear the thunder-like sounds of the fireworks tonight. We see green, with all the rain, and we see people—a welcome sight after a year of distance and quarantine.

As advanced as humankind seems to be and seems to be becoming, we really are usually people of our senses, aren’t we? When we’re cooking, we go by smell and sight to determine if something is cooked. When we plant in the ground, we look for shoots or sprouts to know whether something is, in fact growing. When someone promises to undertake a certain task or project, we wait and we listen and we watch to see what will happen. We look for evidence.

But when it comes to our relationship with God, so often, we’re called to live by another sense, or by something beyond sense—we’re called to live by faith. Like a parent teaching a child to walk, it can feel like God is urging us, teaching us, pulling us up so that (as St. Paul puts it) we can learn to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel is called upon again and again to walk by faith, to believe that God is leading him and is showing the way. In today’s reading, Ezekiel is warned that there are going to be lots of people who will not get it. They won’t understand. They will try to see, but their eyes will fail them. They will try to hear, but their ears will be of no use. But, God says, “if you’re true to yourself, and true to the person I’ve called you to be, then they will know one thing: a prophet has been among them.” So don’t be afraid, don’t be dismayed, just keep praying and moving and being faithful.

Jesus has the same problem in many places as he preaches and teaches and heals. In today’s Gospel he runs into local opposition. The very people who know him best cannot reconcile the Son of Mary with the Son of God. It’s doesn’t compute. It’s doesn’t flow. It can’t be charted out and explained and rationalized and proven. To perceive Jesus as the Christ, to receive Jesus as the Son of God, come to redeem us and live in us and be with us through death and into everlasting life— this takes faith.

There are lots of ways of developing our sense of faith.

First, there’s the lessening of other senses, in order to promote a particular sense.
In the Fourth Century, women and men left the cities and went into the desert to look for God. These desert mothers and fathers and those who have taken matters of the Spirit seriously ever since have prayed for a balance in the senses so that faith might be developed more strongly. There is a tradition in some places of maintaining “custody of the eyes” so that one’s gaze might be directed more upon God. There is the tradition of fasting, so that one’s hunger would be less for carbohydrates and more for Christ. There is the tradition of silence so that the inner voice of God’s Holy Spirit might be heard. Christian ascetics take seriously this spiritual training of the senses—the training, itself being a kind of faith—so that a deeper faith and reliance upon God might be developed and sustained.

Second, we can train the senses. Aromatherapists and oenologists know this, but also, many others. Those who lost their sense of smell because of COVID are encouraged to do a kind of “smell training.” Pick a smell you used to really recognize: the smell of coffee, of lilac, a particular fragrance. And practice breathing it in, over time, and many have found this helps bring back their sense of smell quicker. Doctors suggest one try this for a few minutes, twice a day.

And in some ways, “smell training” is a little like “faith training.” Jesus encourages us to ask, to reach out, to pray—whether we believe or not, whether we have the words or not. And the Church traditionally invites us to pray twice a day—Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

And third, there’s simply asking for God’s presence. If you’re trying to develop your sense of faith, praying is one good way to do it—the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, the Prayer of St. Francis, or even just the simply prayer, “Help! God, if you’re there, answer.”

The old question of which comes first: the chicken or the egg has an analogous one arising from today’s scriptures. Which really comes first? Faith or evidence of faith? Faith or mighty works? “Jesus could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he marveled because of their unbelief.” It’s as though somehow their unbelief, their lack of believing, their disbelief, and their skepticism prevented them from seeing or receiving any miracle that Jesus might do among them.

But we can all deepen our sense of faith. Whether it’s through long walks, visits to quiet places, a retreat or even silence in the midst of a crowd, may we take some time this summer to practice training our senses, and to include in that an openness to developing a deeper sense of faith.

May the Holy Spirit develop within us the kind of faith that leads us through loving trust; that allows God to work wonders, make miracles and do mighty works.

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