The Wideness of God’s Mercy

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 disappointed a lady sitting in the garden this week. When she saw me, she called me over. “Father, can I ask you something?” I said, “sure,” and introduced myself. She explained that she was Roman Catholic and was curious about our church. Wasn’t I glad that the Supreme Court seems to be moving against Roe vs. Wade? Didn’t I agree that this would be so much more in keeping with God’s plan?

I took a deep breath and began to try to explain that the Episcopal Church affirms the sanctity of all life, and, at the same time, affirms the importance of a woman’s faith-informed decision over her own body.  I pointed out that our church differs from hers also in our belief that education around contraception and human sexuality is a priority and an enormous part of the conversation. I explained that I could refer her to carefully researched and written reports of the Episcopal Church General Conventions that give voice to the nuances and complexities of the issue, but she said, that for her, it was all very simple. I explained that I needed to go, but I couldn’t resist saying to her that I really find very little about following Jesus “simple.”

There is a temptation to make religion “simple,” to draw lines and make lists. It keeps some people in and others out.  At its mildest form, it makes us self-righteous and pulls us away from others.  At its extreme, it becomes the kind of racism and hatred that motivates killers like yesterday in Buffalo and like too many places around the world and in our country.

But to create that kind of religion is to pick and choose one’s scriptures, to deny the work of the Holy Spirit, and to ignore the way in which scripture reveals Jesus Christ.

In our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter runs into this kind of thinking when he returns from missionary activity and goes back to Jerusalem. The faithful there criticize Peter because they’ve heard that he’s taking the message about Jesus beyond Judaism and reaching out to Gentiles—which is to say, everyone else. The uncircumcised. The uneducated. Those people of other heritage, or mixed blood, of all kinds of unspeakable practices.

But Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals– four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them.” But this was like serving steak to a vegetarian—even more so, perhaps, because there were traditions and customs and years of observing these dietary laws as a good and faithful Jew.

There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good.

It turns out that this dream prepares Peter for what comes next. He meets Cornelius. Cornelius is not only a Gentile, a non-Jew. But Cornelius was also a soldier, an agent of the Roman state, one who might follow orders to burn and sack a Jewish village whenever it was the whim of the emperor. But God had been working on Cornelius just like God worked on Peter through the vision.

Peter and Cornelius talk. Cornelius is converted. And then, Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

The vision of Peter invites us to think about our own perspective. Who is included in God’s love? God’s mercy? God’s forgiveness?

Those of other faiths or denominations with Christianity?
The uneducated. Those who live outside urban centers. 
Those who speak different languages.
Those who have different sexual or expressions.
Those who get married and have children, those who choose not to, etc, etc., the list goes on.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.

The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” points to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.

We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up chairs and a bowls, and we washed feet. At Holy Trinity, we try to do what Jesus talks about in scripture. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. Another washes that person’s feet. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet. The harder part is allowing another to serve me, to wash my feet. But that completes the circle of love Jesus is pointing to.

This “new commandment” is not a commandment like a law, a law we must do, or there will be a penalty. It’s more like a rule that, practiced over time, shows its worth. The commandment to love through service is like a “best practice,” something that brings success emotionally, spiritually, and socially.

God surprised Peter and those early followers of Jesus by showing just how wide God’s love is. Jesus surprised his friends and disciples by showing just how radical God’s love is.

May the Spirit enable us to be part of the Jesus movement of witness to love and service, love that takes us into eternal life.

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Help in Following God’s Way

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:

It works out nicely that on this Sunday, observed as Mother’s Day by many, the scriptures give us a picture of someone who seems to have been a wonderful mother of faith. We don’t know if she had children of her own, but she certainly had spiritual daughters, sons, and an enormous family to follow.  The reading from Acts talks about Tabitha, whose Greek name was Dorcas.  The Acts of the Apostles gives us a picture of how the early church was growing, with energy and faith in the resurrection, with Mary and the other disciples spreading the word, and with local, everyday people putting their faith in Jesus and changing the world right where they lived.

Dorcas seems to have been such a woman. She was “devoted to good works and acts of charity,” but news reaches Peter that Dorcas has died.  When he reaches her village, he meets all the women around her, weeping, sharing memories, mourning, and, as scripture says, “showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.”  Peter heals Dorcas and she is raised up, presumably, to live an even longer life of good works, acts of charity, and making clothing for those who need it.

The name of Dorcas continues in the Christian Church, with Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian ministries named after her.  Especially in the 1800s, the Dorcas Society begun in England established various chapters in the United States.  An especially strong one was the African Dorcas Association, founded in 1828 in New York.  Women would meet at Margaret Francis’s house in Tribeca or in the Free School on Mulberry St.  Members of the society pooled their resources and made clothes for poor children to be able to attend school, especially those attended the African Free School.

The Biblical Dorcas continues to inspire as someone who did what today’s Collect of the Day suggests:  that we hear the voice of Christ, that we hear in it our own name, and that we have the faith and strength to follow where he leads.

Whether we actually hear something we think may be the voice of Christ, or simply choose to listen for that voice—the voice of God’s love towards us, the music of God’s peace, the sound of the Spirit’s strengthening—faith involves our trying hear and developing our ability to tune out all the noise and static, so that we can really listen.  Some may hear it clearly. Others may hear it only partially, or trust that others hear it.  But our being here, in this place, is an act of our obedience to God, recalling that the word “obedience” comes from the Latin, ob-audire… to listen, to hear.

But do we also listen for our own name in the sound of God? The second part of today’s prayer invites us to “hear our own name,” meaning, to discern our own path for being faithful.  Sometimes we can do that alone. We sense God’s invitation to use a part of ourselves, to develop a talent, and to share it with others.  But often, we’re slow to hear God alone, and we need other people. That’s where the whole community of faith comes in, as we help one another discern God’s gifts.  It happens when someone says to you, “I notice you’re good with kids. Would you consider helping teach Sunday school or volunteer for a special children’s event?”  Or, “I notice you have ideas about the church, may I nominate you to stand for vestry or serve in some other capacity?”  On and on, goes the encouragement, the listening, and the discernment.

The third part of our Collect of the Day involves following where Christ leads.  The Good Shepherd and lamb imagery breaks down when we think about this third part.  God has given us a great deal more freedom and willpower than a lamb has.  We can choose to follow the way of God in Christ, as we hear it ourselves, and as it’s amplified in Christian community, or we can choose to go some other way. Often, we can choose an in-between.  We sense where God wants us to go, but we don’t feel strong enough, faithful enough, or ready enough.  Maybe we stop still, in fear.  Or maybe we veer off to the right or left.

We do something like what we think God is calling us to do, but with less heart, with less faith; we do something more within our own capabilities, with less spiritual challenge, or something we don’t have to necessarily fall into the arms of God for.

The somewhat scary word, “vocation” can sometimes be used in a kind of all or nothing way.  But I think a person can have several vocations, if one is open to God’s Spirit.  Frederick Buechner has defined vocation famously as “the work God calls you to do.”  He explains,

There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Super-ego, or Self-Interest.

By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either.

Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.  (Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 95).

When I think of an openness to God’s calling and vocation, I think of my college friend, who I’ll call Lisa.  Lisa majored in business and did well, graduated, and quickly began working for a large bank.  She did well and was fairly happy, though worked long hours.  When she met her husband, who also worked in banking, she began to be open to a change. She prayed a lot about this, asked people at church, and continued to listen for God’s prompting. Lisa became pregnant, which filled her mind/body/spirit with new life.  But through her pregnancy, an idea began to grow.  Once her son was born, the idea seemed to be encouraged from every direction.  Lisa wanted to be a nurse or a midwife, somehow to assist other women in bringing children into the world.  She went back to college to take a few science classes, enrolled in nurses training, and after a few years, began working in a hospital on the newborn wing.  Her early vocation was as a banker. Her midlife vocation is as a nurse.  Who knows what her later life’s vocation might be?

The Church itself is sometimes understood as Mother Church—because it gives birth to faith, to new vocations, and to new life.

On this and every day, may God “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.”

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Our God of Second Chances

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 someone tells you a “fish tale,” it usually means they’re telling you a story that either didn’t happen, or a story that they have embellished or stretched.  But today’s Gospel is a “fish tale,” of sorts.  But it’s a “fish tale” not because it’s untrue, but because it’s almost too good to be true.  In this fish tale, St. Peter gets a second chance.  And this means that we, too, are given second, third, fourth, and infinitesimal chances in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus appears in the work of the disciples:  he appears first as a wise fisherman with advice for where to put the net in, and second he appears almost as a “short order Savior,” Jesus at the Galilee grill, cooking a meal for his friends and in so doing, shares with them the fullness of God’s bounty.

But God provides much more than breakfast.  God gives more than the stuff of just another good fish-tale for the disciples to hand on to the church.  Especially if we look at Simon Peter, we see the extravagance of God’s provision. God provides—again, and again, and again.

Remember Simon Peter on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday?    Remember that the disciples were gathered in the upper room for the Passover meal.  Just before the meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and washed the disciples’ feet.  It was Simon Peter who said to Jesus, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  And Jesus says, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” But Jesus answers, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”  Peter begins to catch on, so says excitedly, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Later that night, after Jesus is arrested from the Garden of Gethsemane, Simon Peter is by the fire, getting warm.  Someone asks, “Aren’t you one of them?  Aren’t you one of the followers of Jesus?” And Peter shakes his head.  Again, and another time, Peter denies, rejects, disowns, plays it safe to cover himself, and to pretend there never was this claim of Jesus on his heart.

In the resurrection account the women go to the tomb and see that Jesus is no longer there and they tell Peter.  It seems then, for a second, Peter believes.  (And yet, some biblical scholars suggest that this mention of Simon is misplaced and that today’s reading shows the first appearance of Jesus to Simon Peter.)

In any case, immediately after his denial of Jesus, we don’t really know what Simon Peter did.  We don’t know where he went, who he was with.  Did he go into town, find a pub, settle in and try to forget it all?  Did he ask questions of his friends and try to piece things together?  Did he pray?

We don’t know, but what we see from the scriptures is that before long, Peter simply went fishing.

The St. Peter who is full of faith, carved in marble, and in important places all over Rome and elsewhere is a St. Peter to whom I have a hard time relating.  But the Peter in the scriptures—this Simon Peter, who’s faith one minute allows him to walk on water to meet Jesus, but the next minute makes him fall in-this Peter, I can relate to.

In the Gospel, I imagine that Peter has had a long week.  There’s a lot on his mind, and so he just needs to get away, to run away.  Fishing provides a way and provides the additional cover of appearing like going back to work.  Getting back to normal.  Let God sort out the things of God, there are bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Except that the fish aren’t biting.  It’s as though creation itself refuses to cooperate with Peter’s will.  Creation—the water, the fish, the wind—are saying, “No, Peter, you need to sort some things out first.”

A new day begins to break, the sun is just about to come up and the disciples make out a form standing on the beach.  “Throw the net in on the other side,” the person says, but speaks with a kind of knowing authority that commands attention.  The disciples throw the net in, and suddenly they feel the weight of so many fish they can barely haul in the catch.  John says to Peter, “It’s the Lord.”  And when Simon Peter hears this, he gets himself together, jumps into the water, and swims to the shore to see for himself what seems too good to be true, too fantastic, too forgiving, too much of God’s grace.  And yet, there is Jesus.

It’s like a second baptism for Peter.  The old is washed away.  The new is come.  Buried with Christ in his death, Peter is lifted up to share in the resurrection of Christ.  Peter becomes like a little child again, with a light heart, and a ready faith.

“Come and have breakfast,” Jesus says.  And the disciples hear echoes of “take, eat, this is my body.”  The meal is shared, new life is shared, tasted and savored.  The meal provides for the kind of intimacy and honesty in which Jesus can pull Simon Peter aside.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  “Feed my lambs,” Jesus says.  Then again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you,”  Peter says.  And then a third time Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”  And this time, Peter is sad because Jesus keeps asking and seems to doubt and seems to know how shaky and unreliable Peter’s heart really is, so he says, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”  And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.  And follow me.”

Three times Jesus asks, “Do you love me?”  This fixes, it un-does, and it recapitulates the three denials of Peter.  The Church enacts this doing and un-doing of three-ness during Holy Week as on Good Friday, in some places, the Holy Cross is brought into the church from the back and the cross is presented at three places with the words, “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.”  Three times the cross is show and the proclamation made.  And then at the Easter Vigil, the cross is replaced with the Paschal Candle, and again in those same three places new life is proclaimed, “The light of Christ, thanks be to God.”

Whether in patterns of three, or four, or a hundred, or once—God provides occasions in our lives, like he did with Simon Peter, so that we might have a second chance.   I once saw a sign in a chaplain’s office that said, “O God of second chances and new beginnings, here I am…. again.”

And here we are…. again.  Tom Long, an old preaching professor of mine, likes to say that faith is not so much an experience or a feeling or an emotion.  It’s not simply some kind of vague awareness of something greater than ourselves. Rather, faith is a skill.  It’s a skill to be taught and developed and practiced.  Faith is something to be done in the world.  And the world awaits our doing.

Jesus says, “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep.”  In other words, “care for one another, show love to one another, especially the stranger and the misfit, search out for the lonely and forgotten, the poor and the sick, and follow me.”

Like Peter, God gives us second chances.  For the one who has become so engrossed in work as to forget the gifts of family, God provides a second chance.  For the one who walks by the person in need, God provides a second chance.  For the one who has to have the final word, never buckling under to another, God provides a second chance.  To the ones whose relationship is more mundane than magic, God provides.  For the one who is angry, or disappointed, or who is stuck in shame, who’s obsessed with regret, the one who has lost faith in a world of abuse, violence, bombs and bloodshed…. God provides a second chance… and a third… and fourth….and more than we can count.

Whether this is the second chance or the two-thousandth chance, accept the grace that God would grant, receive the forgiveness, embrace the welcome, and throw your life into the life of Christ again.

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Faith (and Doubt) of Thomas

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:

A few weeks ago, on April 3, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Troeger died after a several-year diagnosis of cancer.  Near the end of his life, he told the current dean of Yale Divinity School, “I am dying, but my soul is dancing.”  Professor Troeger began ministry as a Presbyterian Minister, and later was ordained in the Episcopal Church (you can see one reason why I liked him). He taught with a friend of mine for some years, but what I most admired about Tom Troeger was that even though he wrote academic books, and articles, and preached, and taught– he also wrote hymns. More than fifty of his poems and hymns have been published, and he sometimes said that he felt his real theology could be found in those songs.

And so, on this St. Thomas Sunday, I feel like it’s appropriate to quote from another Saint-in-the-making Thomas.  His hymn, so appropriate for today, sings

These things did Thomas hold for real:
The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
the grain of wood, the heft of stone,
the last frail twitch of blood and bone.

His brittle certainties denied
That one could live when one had died,
until his fingers read like Braille
the markings of the spear and nail.

May we, O God, by grace believe
And, in believing, still receive
the Christ who held His raw palms out
and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

(Thomas Troeger, 1984, Psalter/Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church)

We hear about Thomas in several places in the Bible.

Thomas was a twin. That’s what his name means really (Tauma in Aramaic). Some have supposed that he may have been the twin brother of Matthew. Earlier in John’s Gospel, when they hear the news their friend Lazarus is dead, it’s Thomas who wants to go with Jesus. Sensing danger and not knowing what’s ahead, there’s no doubt to Thomas as he has the faith to say, “Let us go with the Lord, so that we may die with him.”

When Jesus is giving his farewell discourse to the disciples, he talks about going down a road and to a place where the disciples will not be able to follow. Thomas speaks up and says, “But Lord we don’t know where you’re going.” Jesus affirms they really DO know– that by knowing him, they know his destination, as Jesus explains to them, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.”

Thomas is with the disciples when they are fishing and Jesus appears to them. And Thomas sometimes seems more theologically alert than the other disciples, asking the penetrating question, urging Jesus to explain himself. The early church understood Thomas as the author of another Gospel. There is a collection of sayings called the Acts of Thomas, and there is an apocalypse of Thomas.

Tradition has it that Thomas sailed to India and spread the Gospel there. After a long life of preaching and working with the poor, he was martyred in India, but Thomas’s body was taken to Edessa, where his relics were an important source of inspiration to the Syrian Church in the 4th century.

It was not enough for Thomas to hear of the resurrection from Mary Magdalene. It was not enough for him to hear of it from the two who were on the road to Emmaus. Thomas’s faith came more stubbornly, and had to take into consideration more information. His faith was different from theirs—what appears to others like doubt, indecision, even a lack of faith—for Thomas, it was simply HIS faith. It was his way of faith. A way that was willing to struggle, to look for truth deeply, to weigh the evidence, and only then, move forward.

Jesus had already appeared to the other disciples. He had breathed on them the very Spirit of God and they were spirit-filled. They shared in the resurrection as it brought them new life and filled them with the very life of God, and began to move them out of the locked room into the world. But Thomas had not been with them. “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” And so, on the eighth day—the day of new creation, the day beyond the seven days of creation, the day of new possibilities and unimagined miracles—Jesus appears again to the disciples.

Peace be with you, Jesus says. And Jesus then offers himself—the resurrected body that still bears the wounds, though they are transformed. The Gospel does not tell us whether Thomas actually touched the wounds. There is room for our imagination. In Rembrandt’s great painting of Thomas and Jesus, “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” Jesus stands showing the wound in his side. The disciples are amazed and look on with wonder, and Thomas stands back in surprise, in shock. It is Caravaggio’s painting that is much more explicit—darker, more intimate, more shocking really, because in it, Thomas actually places his finger in the wound. As in the Gospel of John itself, some believe without signs, some need signs.

St. Thomas not only stands as the father of Indian and Syrian Christianity, he also stands as a patron for those whose faith does not come easily, with those whose faith includes a measure of doubt, a bit of suspicion, maybe even a little cynicism.

It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to wonder. It’s ok even to be a little suspicious—especially since for one (if not more) suspicion eventually has led to sainthood.

Especially at this time of year, may we be honest with out doubts and honest with our belief, knowing that wherever we may be, God loves us and wants to come to us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Forgiveness beyond ourselves

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:

Earlier this week, I received a text message from someone whose question cut to the heart of Holy Week. Really, it goes to the heart of our faith. His question by-passes all the beautiful music, the powerful readings, the pageantry of the liturgy, the flowers… His question goes right to the cross.

The text message said, “Every night I say my prayers and I finish up with The Lord’s Prayer. Last night,” he explained, “as I was praying, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ I had the image of soldiers committing war crimes against innocent people. Are we directed to forgive them?”

I paused.

I knew I couldn’t ignore the question, but I also knew that because the person asking knows me, I wouldn’t be able to get by with a pious word or some kind of quick pastoral Band-Aid.

After a little while, I tried to be honest. I wrote back something like, “I know that I can’t always forgive as God asks me to, but I just have to say, “Jesus, you know I can’t bring myself to fully forgive so-and-so, or such-and-such, but work on me, and them.” Basically, I take Jesus up on his offer, when he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.”

Even when I can’t forgive, especially when I can’t forgive as I should, I know someone who can.

In today’s long Gospel Reading, as we hear from St. Luke’s version of the Passion, the events that lead to Jesus being crucified on a cross, we hear again that even at the cross, Jesus forgives. As he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, Jesus prays for the soldiers who are committing crimes against him, against the others, against many other innocent or poor, or weak people. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We should notice those words and always remember those words.

In his sermon earlier today, Pope Francis put it much better than I can:

When we resort to violence, we show that we no longer know anything about God, who is our Father, or even about others, who are our brothers and sisters…. We see this in the folly of war, where Christ is crucified yet another time. Christ is once more nailed to the Cross in mothers who mourn the unjust death of husbands and sons. He is crucified in refugees who flee from bombs with children in their arms. He is crucified in the elderly left alone to die; in young people deprived of a future; in soldiers sent to kill their brothers and sisters. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’ Many people heard these extraordinary words [as Jesus prayed them from the cross], but only one person responded to them. He was a criminal, crucified next to Jesus.

During the next week, we are invited to follow Jesus even more closely.

The Daily Prayers take us with him through Jerusalem.

On Wednesday night, we pray through the Office of Tenebrae, and notice the ways in which some of the Hebrew scripture prophecies play out in the life of Jesus. We practice praying even as candles are extinguished and light seems to fade. But then, in the deep darkness, we’re reminded again that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

On Maundy Thursday, we see and imitate again, how Jesus serves, how he lives out a kind of simply humility by being present and serving others.

On Good Friday, from Noon to Three, we reflect more deeply on the Stations of the Cross and at Seven, we pray through the whole Good Friday Liturgy, as we hear the Passion of St. John, sung by the choir.

Saturday is the day in which things were quiet. Jesus was in the tomb. But Saturday night, we count time with our Jewish brothers and sisters, and observe the Eve of Easter, at 7PM in the Church Garden, we celebrate the first Holy Eucharist of Easter.

On Easter Day, some of us will be up early. We’ll meet at Carl Schurz Park for a 6AM Sunrise service on the Promenade.

Then, at Holy Trinity, we’ll celebrate Easter all day—at 8AM, at 11AM and at 6PM.

I invite you to make your way to the Cross this week. Take whatever weighs you down, whatever burdens you, whatever worries you, and hand it into the hands of the Wounded One who always forgives, and teaches us the way of love. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Christ our Friend

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:

The scriptures today invite us to get ready, to heighten all our senses if we can, to listen, look, taste, see, feel… “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord.  And God asks Isaiah (and us), “Do you perceive it? Can you sense the new thing?”

The section we hear from Isaiah today comes from a larger section that promises good things to the people of Israel.  And yet, this word of encouragement from God through Isaiah comes while the Israel is still far from home.  They are still captive in Babylon and only have the hope of returning home.  Isaiah says, “Hang on. It’s going to get better.” “I will make a way.”  I will bring water to the thirsty and food to the hungry.  I will lead you out of this, into a better place.

The Psalm sings of just that, of God’s deliverance.  This is a pilgrimage psalm.  People would gather together to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem and they would sing psalms like this one on the way to celebrate the Passover, just like the kind of procession we’ll re-enact next Sunday, the palms that lead the way forward for Jesus.

The Gospel today takes us right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem.  It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.

Today’s Gospel sets the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week.  Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus.  This is just after Lazarus has died, and Jesus has raised him from death.  But this is just a hint of what’s coming. Lazarus has been resuscitated, given a new lease on life, but he will presumably die again, later.  This “raising” has to do with Lazarus and is a sign.  But it begins to reveal the power of God in Christ, the power that will be fully let loose on Easter with the resurrection not only from death, but with a victory of sin and death for ever.

Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty.  The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life.  But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern open and available to us.

In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ.  That he is a Jew, doesn’t matter.  That he is learned, doesn’t matter.  That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter.  His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. That’s all rubbish, Paul says.  The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”  Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch or befriend.  And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not primarily in scripture.  Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us.  In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need.

“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36).  Sometimes that might be a stranger, but other times it might be that we meet Christ is a person very close to us as we serve them, or as we allow them to serve us.

Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar.  In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another.  In the sharing of a meal, we become a family.  In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ.

In the other people, through Holy Scripture, in Holy Communion, and through prayer, Jesus Christ befriends us.

Any friendship takes time to develop. It involves talking and listening.  With a real friend, we can be ourselves—no pretenses, just comfort.  A friend can challenge us and change us.  A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour.

Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space.  That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge.  But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing.  Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available.  Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.

This side of heaven, we don’t have the easy friendship with Jesus that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had.  But Christ does invite us to the same kind of intimacy.  We don’t have oil to offer in anointing, but we have other gifts, other qualities, other ways of being present, being still, listening and learning from Jesus our Friend.

As we remember the stories that take us along with Jesus to Jerusalem, may the Holy Spirit quicken within us a sense of Christ our Friend—alongside and within.

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Pondering the Prodigal

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 just heard one of Jesus’s most famous stories, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It’s one of those stories that finds its way into popular culture and would easily end up being an answer in a crossword puzzle or on Jeopardy.  But if someone asked you what “prodigal” means, how would you answer?  If you explained that “prodigal” usually means wasteful, and describes someone who is a spendthrift, you’d be close to the original definition. It comes from the Latin word, prodigus, meaning extravagant or lavish. And so the younger brother in the story is certainly “prodigal” from the perspective of the older brother.  A secondary definition of “prodigal” is “one who returns after an absence,” which might be the understanding from the father’s standpoint in the parable.

I think it’s interesting for us to consider which definition comes more easily to our mind, and then to ask why?

And then, there’s the question of if we are the one who has left home and returned, would we even USE the word, “prodigal” to refer to ourselves?

The nuance in definition around the idea of “prodigal” points to the power of a parable. A parable is different from an allegory, in that a parable has several points and can change according to one’s point of view. The same story can change in meaning over one’s life, which is the fun of reading scripture over and over again.

The story is a welcome one for those who relate to the prodigal—St. Augustine related to him, having spent some of his early years running, living beyond his means, using people to rise socially, fathering a child out of marriage, joining an heretical sect. But Augustine came home, and he came to know the welcome of his mother Helena, who had been praying for him, and he came to know the welcome of his spiritual father, Ambrose. He spent the rest of his life coming to know the heavenly father—who is the combination of all that is maternal and paternal, the one who seeks us out and finds us. Augustine writes, “The prodigal son was sought out and raised up by the One who gives life to all things. And by whom was he found if not by the One who came to save and seek out what was lost?”

One could also pretty easily step into this story and understand something of the older brother. Some of us might relate to the older brother who has stayed at home and done his work—and yet gets no feast from the father. But I wonder if there’s not more than resentment in the older brother—but perhaps also, isn’t there just a little bit of envy? Notice that he assumes the younger brother has spent time with prostitutes, though there’s no other mention of that little detail in the story. Charles Wesley, the great hymn writer, once thanked God that in his youth he had escaped the more “grievous sins” and that he had not been one of the “young corruptors,” as he put it. But, he said, the reason he didn’t sin more was because of a kind of “sacred cowardice.” It was not his goodness that had kept him from sin, but the only the fear of the consequences. (Do we ever stop to wonder what trouble we might get into if there truly were no risk of getting caught?)

Today’s Gospel presents us with characters we can understand. There is the younger child who runs away, who becomes lost, and who loses himself. But then he is found, and in the finding he finds himself. He comes to himself.

There is the older child who watches all of this and doesn’t understand, who simply grows angrier and angrier and angrier, until at last the rage breaks.

But there is also the father who forgives. Jesus tells the story, “While [the younger son] was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And then it’s party time. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Laetare! Rejoice. That’s the nickname of this Fourth Sunday in Lent, after the choral introit often sung: “Rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow, exult and be replenished.”

Henri Nouwen wrote a great little book, entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s a reflection upon the great painting of the story by Rembrandt, and also a reflection of Nouwen’s own changing experience of the painting and this story in the Gospel.

As much as he loved the painting, there was a problem in the story for Nouwen. As one who returns to God like the younger child in the parable, Nouwen was familiar with the judgment and authority and majesty of God. But he did not know where to begin when it comes to experiencing the love and mercy of God. As he puts it, “I know that I share this experience with countless others. I have seen how the fear of becoming subject to God’s revenge and punishment has paralyzed the mental and emotional lives of many people. The paralyzing fear of God is one of the great human tragedies.”

But God is beyond our experience of a human parent—even the very best mother or father we can imagine. This is a God who, like the parent in the Gospel story, shows vulnerability in being willing to forgive.

Nouwen believed that Jesus tells the parable of the lost child who is found not so we can related to the prodigal, not so we can relate to the older child, but so that we can relate to the parent; the parent who forgives.

The life of faith is a growth into spiritual adulthood. It is the business of children, after all, to grow up. Saint Paul writes, “We are children of God. And if we are children, then we are heirs, heirs of God and join heirs with Christ, provided that we share his sufferings, so as to share his glory.” (Romans 8:17)

What would the Christian church look like if it were filled with spiritual adults? The spiritual adult does not blame the problems of the church of a bishop or a few bishops, but takes responsibility for being the body of Christ. The spiritual adult in a parish does not always sit back and wait for the clergy or vestry or unnamed and unknown volunteers to do everything, but takes responsibility. And just imagine the power of a church that is filled with spiritual adults who offer forgiveness and welcome. I can’t help but wonder if one reason so few young people are in church these days has to do with the fact that so few of the adults have ever really grown up themselves. If a church offers no wisdom, no maturity, no leadership, then why should a young person bother?

Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders of his day, the Pharisees and scribes who were murmuring about the sinners who Jesus was spending all his time with. In telling them this story, he was encouraging them to grow up.

May the grace of God work on our hearts to help us to grow up in our faith. May we be brought to the place where we can offer forgiveness without reservation, generosity without question, and where the homecoming feast at the altar may be never ending.

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Sweet flowers are slow . . .

A sermon preached at St. Stephen’s Church, Rochester Row, London, on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022. The Church of St. Stephen’s with St. John’s, since 2016, has been a link parish with The Church of the Holy Trinity. We have enjoyed visits back and forth among parishioners and clergy.

The lectionary readings are from the Church of England and include Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9.

Though I’ve been to England a number of times now, there’s still the American in me that kind of expects everyone to pause for tea in the afternoon and quote Shakespeare back and forth. While we probably have as many Shakespeare references in and around New York, I visited the Chelsea Physic Garden the other day, and was reminded of a wonderful quotation from Richard III. 

The young Duke of York and Queen Elizabeth are talking about the notion that weeds of the world tend to grow quickly while pleasant things take time: “Sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.” (Richard III, II,iv).  

Too often, we see a world in which the weeds seem to be overtaking the good plants, the useful plants, the beautiful plants. The weeds get reported on, they take up all the room in the conversation, our worries, our prayers. 

The scripture from Isaiah meets us at our point of thirst for justice, for fairness, for peace. Like plants during a drought, we long for refreshment, and can cry out with Isaiah: 

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

We hear a similar question in the Gospel, as the people ask Jesus some hard questions.

There’s a report that Pilate has murdered some people from Galilee for offering sacrifices. People wonder about God showing partiality by allowing the massacre to happen, while protecting others. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  He talks about repentance. 

Other people are worried about a different tragedy in which people are killed—a tower has fallen and innocent people are dead. But again, Jesus says those who died were no worse or better than others. “Unless you repent,” Jesus says, “you will all likewise perish.”

We might add our own list of things that grab our attention: why is such violence raining down on the people of Ukraine? Why does a pandemic affect some and not others? Why can’t this person seem to get a break?  Why can’t that person just have a year or a few months without physical challenges?  Why can’t that person beat the addiction that bedevils them?

Just like the people who brought their questions to Jesus, so we might do a similar thing. We thirst with Isaiah. 

Jesus is not discounting our questions and longings. He’s not saying for a minute that these are unimportant. He’s not saying we shouldn’t care. But to those he encounters in today’s Gospel, and perhaps to some of us, he’s saying, often, we need to tend to something else as well, perhaps we even need to tend to something else first. 

Repent, he says. It’s like there’s a mis-communication almost.  Returning to our gardening image, it’s like the people are asking Jesus, “Come summer, should we plant marigolds or zinnias?”  And Jesus responds, “prune your roses.  Cut back the pyracantha.  Do your pruning. Get your plot in order and the rest will follow.”

The church often reminds us that the word “repent” comes loaded with meaning. Repentance has to do with turning around, with changing one’s mind. It’s like when the prodigal son “comes to himself” and changes his mind before he is able to change his behavior. It has to do with turning and re-turning, and carries with it the idea of being sorry for something and the desire to put things right.

As I’ve thought about the scriptures this week and admired the very early spring blooms all over London, it has occurred to me again that gardening and Christian faith have a lot in common. They BOTH involve getting dirty and washing up, over and over and over again. 

Sometimes, and with the church’s encouragement, we can too easily imagine that the spiritual life is just the opposite.  We imagine that it is all about cleanliness and purity.  Susan Pitchford, an Episcopal laywoman in Seattle, writes about this using an image from her former nursing career.  She talks about her love of sterility—that state in which something is absolutely clean and sterile, where no germs can grow.  But–as she points out—NOTHING can grow in a sterile environment.  If you really want to grow something, you not only need dirt, but maybe even a little manure.  A person wanting to grow something gets into the dirt, stirs it up, turns it over, and gets it all mixed up.  And then, as Pitchford writes, “It’s into the places that are broken open that they place the seed—the seed that will produce new life” (Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone, p. 44).

The Christian life is like a garden in that we grow only when we can be honest with our brokenness—honest about the broken relationships, the broken promises, the broken ways of being with others, the broken thoughts or behaviors… all that is less than whole in us.  But every little place that is cracked or fractured is a place where God can plant a seed for new growth, for new possibility, for new life.   Jesus talks about how God uses the broken places when he talks about basic gardening in John 15:1-2, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Pruning has to do with cutting away, opening up for air and sunlight, making room for the new growth.  Pruning has a lot in common with repentance.  

Repent, Jesus says. Stop judging other people, stop trying to figure where you are in the pecking order of God’s favor; stop living for yourselves alone. Jesus asks us to follow him and allow him to help us turn and re-turn to God and God’s intentions for us.

We are called to repent. But repentance can take many different forms.

For some, repentance may involve a very first turning to God. Maybe you didn’t grow up going to church. Maybe you’ve never gotten around to being baptized or confirmed. It may be that you’ve never really been bothered by the question of God before, but recently, something has shifted. Perhaps you’re getting older. Perhaps there are children in your life now. Perhaps you’re dealing with mortality for the first time. It may be a good time to turn to God.  Maybe it’s time for a re-potting, or to try growing in the good, green place God provides.

Repentance might mean re-turning to God. Perhaps you’ve been away for a while. It may be that the church threw you out, or that you felt thrown out. But you’re back. Welcome. You have been missed and it is a good time to re-turn to God.  It might be time to be re-potted or to grow next to something stronger for support, or to grow near something weaker to lend strength.

And sometimes we’re simply called to grow in place and get stronger with God’s care and help.  And sometimes the way of growth for us is first to do our “home-work”—to return to some of those difficult places of family, origin, and places where we began. Sometimes spiritual growth comes only after we have dealt with some of our own personal history: being honest, speaking the truth, and laying it all on the altar of God to be transformed, to be hallowed, to be turned into an offering and a blessing. Pruning can be painful and risky.  Too much, too soon and out of season can do great damage.  But with the right help and guidance, new growth comes. 

At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that is not producing. It’s not changing, it’s not growing, it’s not doing much of anything. The owner suggests that it be cut down and thrown out. But then the gardener has another idea—why not wait a season, give it some time, nurture it, and see what happens. It may yet produce.  Prune it a little.  Cut out the dead.  Let the light in.  Give it some food. 

There’s good news in this for us. As Shakespeare reminds us, “sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste” (Richard III, II,iv).  But God has time. 

God waits for us. There is grace in God’s waiting. But when we turn to God, when we re-turn to God, there is rejoicing in heaven, for we were lost, and are found, we were dead, but are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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

Posted in Sermons | Leave a comment

Although it is the night . . .

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:

A handful of Holy Trinity parishioners is still at Holy Cross Monastery, up the snowy Hudson River about two hours. Before I returned last night, we spent some time at the retreat discussing a poem written by the 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. John is known for his poem and treatise on the Dark Night of the Soul, but I’m especially taken with some of his poetry.

The poem we discussed the other day is one that John wrote during the nine months in which he was a prisoner in a cold cell in Toledo, Spain. Unsure of whether he would be released, tortured in the name of religion by other Carmelite monks, John nonetheless maintained a faith in God.

“Well I remember the fountain,” John writes in this particular poem, as he uses the image of water through the poem. He conjures water like that at the beginning of creation, like that in baptism, like water that gives life to all creation, like water that flows from the side of Christ, as he dies on the cross. Water that combines with flour to make bread, that becomes holy, that makes us holy through Communion with Christ’s body.

The refrain to the poem, is “aunque es la noche,” “although it is the night.” Although it is the night, even though it feels dark outside and in, even though it might feel like God is not paying much attention…. John’s poem nevertheless finds faith.

[The full poem in Spanish can be read HERE.]
[The poem in my favorite English translation, is within another poem by Seamus Heaney, found HERE.]

It’s faith “even though” the current situation is bad for John of the Cross. That kind of faith even though, is a faith we can find strength from, and it’s a faith that comes through in today’s scripture readings.

In the first reading, God speaks to Abram and tries to reassure him. “Do not be afraid,” Abram, God says. “It’s going to be ok.” Abram has been feeling sorry for himself. In a culture in which one was defined by one’s progeny, Abram and Sarai were barren, and had only a distant relative to point to for an heir. But God promises a future they can’t even image, a future glimpsed in our icon of the Holy Trinity, in which the three mysterious strangers, the angels, suggesting the Trinity of God’s love, are shown hospitality by Abram and Sarai, and everything begins to change for them.

“Although it is night,” God might have said to Abram, do not fear. I am with you.

Paul says something similar to the Philippians, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; … Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” But although it seems like the night, Paul says, “our citizenship is in heaven.” “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”

In the Gospel, the Pharisees warn Jesus, that things are looking dark. Herod is out to kill Jesus, so you’d better just get out of town. Jesus refuses to listen. Jesus is not afraid of the dark, but instead, knows that God fills the dark just as well as the light. God holds us close in the dark, like a mother hen protects her young. Whether it’s the dark of night, or the dark of Gethsemane, or the dark of Calvary, Jesus knows that God will be there.

John of the Cross’s poem begins….

How well I know that fountain, filling, running,
Although it is the night.

That eternal fountain, hidden away
I know its haven and its secrecy
Although it is the night

He goes on to talk about the water that runs through even the darkest of nights, of times, of places, and in one verse he writes,

This eternal fountain hides and splashes
Within this living bread that is life to us
Although it is the night.

Hear it calling out to every creature.
And they drink these waters, although it is dark here
Because it is the night.

That turn of the phrase, “because it is the night…” suggests to me that the poet has developed a kind of “night vision” of faith… in other words, he’s not longer scared, like Abram. He’s no longer worried so much about all the evil he sees around him, like the Philippians, but John of the Cross is developing the kind of faith, like Jesus, that can maintain a love for God and for other people, even when it is night, even in the face of difficulty or war or a crazy economy, or failing health… or (fill in the blank.).

The season of Lent invites us into the dark. Perhaps we’re called to spend some time and energy with those in the dark places of the world—to pray for refugees and those under attack, to send money, or supplies. Maybe we’re invited to sit still in the dark—the dark of our own helplessness, our own lack of resources, our own poverty. Or maybe God invites us into the dark of God’s love—to those places where we realize we can’t think it all out, or talk it out, or look up the answers we seek—but instead, we need to sit still and allow God to embrace us—even though it is the night. Because it is the night.

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

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment


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:

One of the great deposits of wisdom in the Christian Tradition comes from the Sayings of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, collections of stories and sayings from Christians who, especially in the 4th century, went into the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, Arabia and Persia, to pursue a deeper relationship with God.

One day, a person trying to figure out their faith approached one of these Desert Fathers saying, “Father, give a word.” In order words, the seeker was asking, “How does one grow in God? How does one pray? How does one learn to be more loving and forgiving…how, how, how?”  The wise old teacher responded simply, “Go and sit in your room, and your room will teach you everything.” [The conventional saying, of course, uses “cell” instead of “room,” but modern hearers will perhaps hear “room” more smoothly.] Whether it’s a special room for prayer, or a bedroom, or a kitchen, or a church—the wisdom is the same:  sit still, pray and meditate and be present with yourself, your deepest self, and God will show up—for you, and in you, and around you. But it might not always be pretty.

Having just been baptized and filled with the Spirit, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, and there (while not so much in a room), Jesus is brought face to face with himself. And within himself, temptations surface up in the form of Satan. Perhaps Satan showed up in person. Perhaps Satan showed up in a vision, or in Jesus’s imagination— whatever way we imagine it, it felt real to Jesus—as real as temptations feel when they show up for us.

Whether we picture the devil as a little red man with a tail and pitchfork, or whether the devil is more that little voice inside each of us that second-guesses and accuses, the temptations Jesus faces are ones that we might be confronted with from time to time.

The temptation of turning stones into bread, is really the temptation of gluttony, to satisfy ourselves with food and drink and stuff, to find happiness in these things.

The temptation of pursuing glory and authority of the world is not so different for us. There are the countless choices we make between doing the thing that will better our paycheck or professional standing or status, as opposed to doing the just, honest, true and decent thing.

And finally, the third temptation for Jesus to jump off the temple top and be rescued by angels. Perhaps it relates to us when we’re so uncomfortable in our own skin or our own situation, that we’re tempted to jump in any direction, to do something tragic or dramatic simply to change the situation.

To each of the temptations offered by the devil, Jesus quotes scripture. In other words, Jesus takes a deep breath, touches his spiritual base, and does whatever he needs to do to center himself and remind himself of who he is and of whose he is. Jesus can withstand the devil’s voice because Jesus has trained for this—through prayer, through showing and sharing compassion, and by spending time alone, learning from his room, from his garden, and from the sometimes painful silence that comes in the face of Truth.

This Season of Lent invites us to practice being along with God, being present with God.  Prayer, spiritual disciplines, self-reflection, growth in faith—all of this is training for spiritual battle.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout this season we’re reminded of classic spiritual disciplines such as spiritual reading or meditating on scripture, praying in a new way, saving money for a particular project or cause and giving it, fasting (whether that means giving up a particular food or drink, or fasting in a more creative way—avoiding waste, or limiting the use of water or plastic or gasoline.) Other things might easily become spiritual disciplines to clarify and steady: a daily walk, a time of reading or sitting still or writing in a journal. All of these, almost anything, really, if given over to God, if done with intention and mindfulness and a willingness to be used by God, can become spiritual disciplines to sharpen us and help us know when we’re being tempted. They help us focus. They bring clarity.

Wherever our spiritual “room” might be—whether a special place at home, or with others, or in the church, in a park, or a yoga studio or gym—may we have the courage to meet God and the strength, with Jesus, to stare down the devil.

We hear in today’s first reading that when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after talking with God, the skin of his face was shining.

This morning, my face may or may not be shining, but I certainly had a recharge of energy and faith over the last few days. I attended a conference in Atlanta, with several hundred other fully vaccinated and negative-testing Episcopalians. We talked about further development of the “third spaces” in our church life– those places that are faithful expressions of our ministry, but don’t (and don’t need to) result in pledging, baptism-on-the books, Episcopal communicants in good standing. We explored existing and future economic models — not in an effort to float sinking ships but (continuing with that image) more to supply canoes and sailboats for a new kind of faithfulness– even if the waters are rough. We talked, and prayed, and explored. And Friday night was a highpoint: a service of songs and hymns, with classic sacred choral, jazz, gospel, and Latin music– led by Bishop Wright of Atlanta, with an unforgettable sermon by The Rev. Dr. (Senator) Rafael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church and junior senator from Georgia.

All of this celebration and hopefulness was not done in a hotel convention center immune from world news. Like all of you, we followed with sadness and outrage, Russia began invading Ukraine. Our sharing of ideas for ministry and mission was done very much with the pandemic still like a cloud behind us, and still a little bit over us. And we were meeting in Atlanta, a place with a heightened sensitivity around Civil Rights– failures and success of the past, and of the present.

My face might not be shining like Moses’s but for me and, I think others, something about being together last week felt like God’s Spirit deepening our resolve to be faithful.  In the words of today’s Gospel, we deepened our faith in being transfigured into more into Christ.

When we reflect on today’s Gospel about the transfiguration of Jesus on another mountain, his face shone like light, too.  But Jesus wasn’t just transfigured in light, mystery, or a cloud of smoke. No, there’s a lot more going on.

By combining the traditions of the law and the prophets, by embodying those traditions, Jesus is showing us how to be transfigured in LOVE, and to be a part of God’s work transfiguring the world into the way of love.

Today, we add our voices to those of people all over the world praying for the people of Ukraine, for the refugees, and especially for the children. But we should not too quickly agree with the newscasters who make this sound unprecedented. There have always been crazy rulers and evil tyrants. And we continue to read reports of the United States bombs and explosives that have killed innocent people in Afghanistan, not to mention the many places around the world where our country has tried to solve systemic problems with brute force.   

As we pray, as we express outrage, as we pressure our leaders for peace, we also need to remember that we, as Christians, language of “casualties,” or “collateral damage,” is not a language we speak.  It’s not our way to enter into the debate about how best to “take out” the tyrant, eradicate the evil, or cheer for the best tactic for winning the game.  We follow the Prince of Peace and we have OUR marching orders.

Our collect of the day prays that we “may be strengthened to bear our cross” and be changed into the likeness of Jesus. In his nonviolent witness to the way of love and peace, Jesus unleased a new power in the world, to reveal the meanness and smallness of violence and to overcome evil by love.

On Thursday, a number of us from the conference visited the National Museum of Civil Rights.  Though the museum promotes an awareness of civil rights broadly and globally understood, but of course, just a few miles from where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up, Dr. King’s faith and vision have a prominent place.  Though King learned from Gandhi about nonviolence, this was simply a directed focus to the way of Jesus Christ, a way Martin Luther King knew intimately. King followed Jesus and remembered well those words from Matthew where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45). Martin Luther King, Jr. simply applied the words of Jesus to the real world.

In 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an article that appeared in the magazine Christian Century. In it, he lays out five points about nonviolence.

First: nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. But it’s aggression is spiritual.
Second: nonviolent resistance does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.
Third: the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces.
Fourth: nonviolent resistance is that it avoids not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. At the center of nonviolence stands the principle of love.
And fifth: the method of nonviolence is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” 1957.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appear, representing their two great traditions, and they still have their followers, in our day. Some of these followers call themselves Christians, but these modern-day followers of Moses love insisting on the letter of the law. The idea of the law becomes more important than the teachings and life of Jesus– so it’s the law of God that takes on a life of itself, and measures all people. If you follow the law (the commandments, moral codes, accumulated tradition of authority), then you’re right with God.

Elijah has his followers, though some of them claim aspects of Jesus. They like the scene of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, but forget that he did not resist physically in going to the cross.

Jesus complicates the role of law and prophecy when he embodies them both in love, and then goes on again, and again to show us what the love of Christ looks like in the world.

Jesus calls us to face down evil with love and there are many ways of doing this, but I think of at least three things we can do that allow for transfiguration.   Be AWARE. ASK for God’s intervention. And ACT in faith.

Be aware of whatever it is in you that rising to the surface—anger, resentment, fury, sadness, over the injustice, the evil, the meanness you see or feel.

Ask for God’s intervention, God’s help, God’s power. Pray for yourself and the transfiguration of hatred, and pray for the other person or people, that they would be released from the evil that’s got a hold on them.

Act in faith. Take some action, channel the anger, the rage, the hurt. Participate politically. Give money. Do something for someone else. Go to the gym or on a long walk to clear your head and be open to how God moves you to act. But don’t sit still in your rage, or it will turn inward and depress, deflate, and eat you up.

The Season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, and we will have a lot of opportunities this season to reflect on what it means for us to “bear our cross” and to be changed into Christ’s likeness, but a big part of that involves our being people of peace, and little by little, and as Bishop Wright of Atlanta sometimes says, “loving the HELL out of the world.”

May God help us to be part of the world’s transfiguration into the love of Christ.

Posted in Sermons | Tagged , , | Leave a comment