Undoing Babel

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“Babel” by Cildo Meireles, 2001, Tate Modern, London

A homily offered at a Service of Lessons and Carols, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2017.  

Listen to the sermon HERE.

At the Tate Modern in London, there’s an amazing art installation.  The installation is in the shape of a large tower that fills the room and is made up of about 800 radios of all shapes, sizes, and eras—all of them tuned to different stations.  At the base of the mountain-like tower are large valve radios in wooden cases.  At the very top of the tower are tiny, more recent radios. One hears music, talk, jabber, beauty, nonsense …. It’s a little like a beehive.  The art piece is called, “Babel,” taking its name from the story in the Book of Genesis about the Tower of Babel.

You might remember the story. Humanity begins to drift from God and develops pride and self-sufficiency.  They say, “Let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves.”  But the people fall on their own pride. The building comes down, they’re scattered, and they no longer can understand each other.  While they previously had all shared the same language (according to the story in Genesis), now the place was called Babel, because their language had become confused.

It’s an old, ancient story that probably arose to explain why people speak different languages and why we can’t understand each other more easily. But it describes a reality we all experience, doesn’t it?  Like that art installation I described, sometimes we enter a room and all we hear is babel, a drone of noise with perhaps a little meaning rising up here and there.

But that’s not God’s intention.  In the beginning of beginnings, in the openings words of Genesis, God creates form out of nothing by speaking.  God’s Word whispers earth and light, flora, fauna, and all that we know. That Word continues through the babel of humanity, through the misunderstanding and mistakes, through the pain and the joy of life….until Christmas.

St. John’s Gospel tells us

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The light shines with love.  The light shines with life.  The light shines with the possibility of understanding. If we listen.

Just a few minutes ago, we heard scripture readings in different languages.  We may not have understood the words, but we heard the tone, the joy, and the love.  The challenge of the way other people talk, what they say, the speed or style with which they say it—all of this can make us feel like we’re living in Babel and can leave us confused and lonely.  But we can also listen for God’s Word, for the life and light of God that lives underneath every word, sentence, or thought.

In art history, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary is sometimes shown as the angel speaking into the ear of Mary.  Sometimes there’s a beam of light, and in some cases, there’s a little tiny cross or baby flying through the air in the beam of light. In the Merode Altarpiece at the Cloisters, the little cross is flying through the light of the window, as Mary leans in to hear what the angel has to say.  It represents the idea that Mary LISTENED and in hearing, became full with God.

So often, I don’t listen.  When I meet new people, I’m worried about making an impression and forget to listen to their name.  When I think I disagree with a person over politics or religion or taste or opinion, I don’t really listen, since I think I know what they’re going to say, anyway.  Sometimes before a musical piece, I catch myself not really listening—after all, I know what Mozart sounds like.  I recognize Brahms when I hear him. But when I don’t listen, I don’t hear.  And God’s work in me in limited and constricted.

In this New Year, let us learn to listen.  Let us resist the powers of Babel that would confuse, separate, and deafen.  Instead, let us be open to God’s Word to break in anew, to be born again.

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

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With Mary in Mind

Our Lady of Walsingham Westminster Cathedral London

Our Lady of Walsingham, pulpit of Westminster Cathedral, London

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017.  The scripture readings are 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26Romans 16:25-27, and Luke 1:26-38.

Listen to the sermon HERE

For many Christians, the Virgin Mary sort of moves in for her close-up this season, and that’s the case especially on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. She is invoked in music, personified in Christmas pageants, and even used as a tastefully generic holiday image on a postal stamp. And yet, for some more Protestant Christians, once the decorations are put away, any thought of Mary also disappears. Roman Catholics tend to make more room for Mary, but sometimes religious practice gives way to superstition, and Mary becomes a caricature.

As Anglicans, and as the Episcopal Church that seeks a “middle way” in most things, when it comes to the Virgin Mary, we are often [surprise!] ambivalent. We mention her from time to time. We might even have a statue or image of her here or there. But what does she matter for our own faith? What does she matter for our relationship with Jesus Christ? And does God mind if we forget about Mary?

I think she matters quite a lot. She matters for our relationship with Jesus Christ, and God “minds” Mary literally, since Mary has been in the mind of God from the beginning.   Today’s scriptures provide pointers as to how this all happens.

In our first lesson (2 Samuel 7:1-1,16) there’s a lot of restlessness. King David is in his new house and he wants the same for his God. David wants to build a temple for God. “Here I am living in a great house of cedar, but the Lord God, Creator of the Universe, Ruler of Heaven and Earth, has to camp out in a tent.” And indeed, this is the way God has been moving around. Symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant (the chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments) has moved around with the people of God with great care.

But God doesn’t want a house—not yet, anyway. God’s not ready. God says, “No David, I’ve got something else in mind.” “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” I will make YOU a house, a dwelling to last forever.”

The word translated as tabernacle can mean several different things. It means “dwelling” and “residence.” Later, when Solomon does build a house for God, a temple, the tabernacle is a special part of that temple, in the sanctuary.

The aumbry, the little cupboard in the wall of our sanctuary is our tabernacle—it’s the place where the Holy Sacrament is reserved when we are not celebrating Holy Communion.  It’s where the sanctuary light burns to show that the Reserved Sacrament is inside.  It’s one dwelling place for God, but it’s not the only one. Even when a physical temple is built, the sense that God pitches a tent with his people is never lost.

We can see from God’s conversation with King David that God has a special place in mind. People thought then and (sometimes) now that God meant a physical place—a building, or a city, or country. But God means a person. God has Mary in mind as a tabernacle, a dwelling place, a home from which other homes will also be born.

Patristic scholars and theologians who think a lot about the Virgin Mary suggest that God has Mary in mind even in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve represent us at our very best and most pure. They are us when we are at our very best selves, but they are us especially when we’re at our best, and before we know it, we’ve been tricked and we stumble. Whether by pride, or lust, or greed, or anything else—we have a tendency to stumble and fall. We fall with Adam and Eve right out of the garden.

But Jesus (in the theology of St. Paul and others) is a new Adam, a chance to re-do things. Jesus is the new Adam and Mary is the new Eve. As the old Eve says “No” to God. “I’ll go my own way, thank you very much.” The New Eve, Mary, says “Yes.” “Here I am. Let it be according to your word.”

Karl Barth, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the twentieth century wrote about Mary as “the moment” in our history when we were cleared of our sin, made holy by grace, and made ready to receive God’s presence, God’s Incarnation.  He wrote of Mary as that moment when God brought all these things together, for us.

And that moment is extended and reflected upon in today’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary as the new temple, the place to be born, to live and grow. This happens not so that Jesus can be good guy, touch people for a few years, and then die a criminal’s death on the cross. God moves through the cross and brings Jesus to new life, continuing the story of salvation through the power of the cross. The cross redeems Adam and Eve. The cross raises Jesus, and redeems Mary the New Eve, and in so doing the cross creates a way for us.

Though we may cringe at the old phrase of “accepting Jesus in our heart”—too often it smacks of evangelical coercion and religious bigotry—“accepting Jesus in our heart” is really what Christianity is all about. It’s about allowing God to be born in each one of us. Becoming a Christian involves allowing God to make a home in our heart, to dwell with us, to camp with us.

Not only is there a way is made for us to live eternally, but also here, in this life, we are made more. By allowing God to live in us, our hearts grow larger and more generous. As fear falls away, we grow in faith. We grow in forgiveness and acceptance and mercy. We grow in God.

The Good News of this day and this season is that God had Mary in mind. (From the beginning, through the Wisdom literature, with the prophets, in exile and in deliverance, in the Gospel, even on Calvary, and also on Easter Day.)

But the Good News is that God had and has us in mind, too. We are not accidents. We did not “just happen.” Since the beginning of time, God has imagined you, and desired you, and loved you. God wants to be born anew in you and me and all the world, that the angels may have even more to sing about.

St. Ambrose, the 5th century bishop of Milan, in a commentary on the Gospel of Luke, urges us to

Let Mary’s soul be in each of you to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let her spirit be in each to rejoice in the Lord. Christ has only one mother in the flesh, but we all bring forth Christ in faith. Every soul receives the Word of God . . . [Our soul] proclaims the greatness of the Lord, just as Mary’s soul magnified the Lord and her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior.

Christians the world over sometimes refer to Mary as “full of grace.”  But the Blessed Virgin Mary is full of grace so that we might be too. Mary is blessed so that we might be too. Mary is made holy so that we might be holy too.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, God has Mary in mind. And thanks be to God, that God has us in mind too.

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

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Preparing for Joy

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The Virgin Mary & Jesus, St. Stephen’s Church

A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 17, 2017, offered at the parish of St. Stephens with St. John, Westminster, London. 

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I bring you greetings from The Church of the Holy Trinity in New York City.  Thank you so much for your friendship and your prayers, as we have lived into our linked parish relationship.  Thanks especially to Graham and Cath for their collegiality, friendship, and welcome.  And thanks to the Buckles: Graham, Victoria, Monica, and Ollie, who have shown us such wonderful hospitality. Thanks especially to Fabian, who we haven’t met yet– since we are staying in his room!  It is a great joy to be with you all.

Joy is in many ways the theme of today’s worship.  It’s the Third Sunday of Advent and in some places a special name, “Gaudete,” from the first word the congregation hears as the choir sings, “Gaudete in Domino semper,” “Rejoice in God always.” (from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians) “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice.”

In today’s first scripture reading, Isaiah brings joy to a people in exile who are longing to go home. “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,” Isaiah says. “To bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; . . . to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faith spirit.” A joyful message, indeed.

The psalm also rejoices that God has remembered Israel, so that “our mouths are filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy.”  Psalm 126 can be replaced today with the Song of Mary, Magnificat, as it sings of God’s promise and power to do justice, to make things right, to lift up the poor and lowly, and the fill the hungry with good things.

The Gospel continues the theme of joy, but here, the joy goes further and is transformed into light. John the Baptist explains that his job is a little like Mary’s: to magnify, to point to the light, to testify to the light, and to bear witness.

And so, today, with the prophets, with Mary, and with John the Baptist, we too are invited to bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ, and to share the joy of his good news.  But that’s not always easy, is it?

One of the Collects for today prays

God for whom we watch and wait, you sent John the Baptist to prepare the way of your Son: give us courage to speak the truth, to hunger for justice, and to suffer for the cause of right, with Jesus Christ our Lord. (Common Worship, Church of England, option 2)

That’s hard stuff: to “speak the truth, hunger for justice, and suffer for the cause of right”—whether it’s with or without Jesus.  And yet, that’s the very place—the deep place, the holy place, the place of the Cross—where true joy can be found.

The 20th century priest and writer Henri Nouwen talked about the difference between happiness and joy.  He suggests that while happiness often depends on external, outward conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”

Happiness is a gift and something I hope for everyone, but joy is a quality that runs deeper and grows with the Spirit of God.  Isaiah could weep for the people’s sins and have joy in God’s goodness all at the same time.  The psalmist could weep all night, but even through tears, know that morning would come – one day, some day.  The Blessed Virgin Mary could enjoy every moment with her son and savior, while sensing all the while a sadness that would result in his death on the cross.

December 17, this year, happens to be the Third Sunday of Advent, but in the church calendar, it is also the day for commemorating Eglantine Jebb.  Born in 1876, Eglantine worked on behalf of a number of progressive causes, but especially felt called to action after World War I, when she began raising money on behalf of German and Austrian children, hurt by the war’s aftermath and an Allied blockade.  Though she was arrested for going against the wishes of the British government, she persisted and overcame the objections.  With her sister, Eglantine founded Save the Children, the organization that put forth a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, approved by the League of Nations and later adopted by the United Nations.  The organization has flourished and last year, Save the Children reached more than 157 million children in 120 countries.

Eglantine Jebb prepared for JOY.  She prepared for joy to break into the lives of millions of children and all those along the way whose lives are enriched and magnified in the process.  But what’s especially interesting (to me) about Eglantine Jebb is that she was not always joyous, herself.

She suffered from a thyroid condition, underwent three surgeries, and died at the age of 52. She loved writing, but failed at publishing any of her novels.  She was often disappointed in love, she seemed to suffer from depression, and she did not even find herself especially comfortable with children.  But she prepared the way.

One key to joy, I think, is remembering that we are called to help prepare the way, but the ultimate joy is God’s to shower and shine forth. We work. We pray. We hope. We do our part, but then we have to let go.  We rest in faith and watch in hope.  Because it’s God’s work to finish and unfold.

Especially in this season, we can look and learn from our own busy lives.
For example, I can cook a roast and all the other food, set a perfect table, have everything just right—but that doesn’t insure that people will get along, that the conversation will go well, or that people will enjoy the time they spend together. I can only do my part, but then have to let go.
I can give a gift, but can’t control the reaction.
We can prepare our children for the world, but we can’t control the way they turn out.
We can prepare our bodies for aging and for stress, but there’s a point where we have to trust in doctors and science, and pray for God’s healing.
We can pray, give sacrificially, and volunteer until we collapse, but it is God’s Spirit who will grow the Church.

May we prepare with the tenacious joy of John the Baptist. May we hope with the bright joy of the Virgin Mary. And may we work with the steady joy of Eglantine Jebb and others, as seek to share the joy of Jesus Christ this Christmas and always.

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

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Being Willing to Love

fullsizeoutput_2eA homily offered at the marriage of Shane Davies and Dale Lewis on December 9, 2017 at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.  The scripture readings are 1 Samuel 18:1b, 3, 20:16-17, 42a, Psalm 98, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and John 15:9-12. 

In just a few minutes, Dale and Shane will make vows.  Shane will be asked, “Will you live together in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as you both shall live?”   And he’ll say, “I will.”

And then Dale will be asked, “Will you live together in faithfulness and holiness of life as long as you both shall live?”   And presumably, he’ll say, “I will.”

Then the questions come to us.  “Will all of you here gathered uphold and honor Shane and Dale and respect the covenant they make?”  Our response: “We will.”

And then, a final question: “Will you pray for them in times of trouble and celebrate with them in times of joy?”  And we will thunder forth another response, “We will!”

I will.  They will.  We will.  There’s a lot of “willingness,” this afternoon, if you notice.  And even though all kinds of qualities bring us to this day–maturity, decisiveness, generosity, patience, and fortitude.  Willingness has to be highly prized among them.

On October 6, 2013, Dale and Shane met.  It was on that day that this church offered what is called an “Instructed Eucharist,” a slowed-down version of what we do in church with explanations throughout.  Afterwards, there was dinner and a discussion.

Dale was willing to be a part of this church and this program that sought to welcome and invite newcomers, regardless of whether they prayed like us, looked like us, or believed like us.

Shane, too, was willing.  He was willing to try a new place, a new way of thinking and looking.

And so, in many ways it was willingness—to be open, to explore, to risk—that allowed Dale and Shane to meet in the first place.  And willingness carries them still.

We get hints of this quality of willingness in today’s scriptures. In the first reading, we get a quick view into the relationship between Jonathan and David.  Jonathan, we’re told, loved David “as his own soul,” and “as he loved his own life.” They made a covenant to one another and promised fidelity.  Jonathan was willing to risk his relationship with his father the king, with his standing in the royal household, and perhaps his life, for the love of David. David risked his life being as close to Jonathan as he could, for as long as he could.

Willingness is the context for the beautiful anthem we just heard. It’s based on words from the Song of Solomon, “Set me as a seal.” Again, the theme of willingness runs throughout as the poetic language of the scriptures describes a kind of love willing to bear the heart, willing to share love, willing to break social taboo, and willing to wage everything on love. [If you’ve never read Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, get a Bible, or read it online.  It’s hot stuff.]

St. Paul chimes in, as well, with his First Letter to the Corinthians.  There he basically qualifies as a fellow believer, a fellow struggler, as he talks about his own reluctant willingness to grow up, to move beyond childish selfishness and to begin to be open to other people, to wisdom and insight for other sources, and finally, to the way of God’s love.

For Christians, Jesus is the Way of love.  And Jesus relates his way of love to following the commandments of God.  But he doesn’t get caught up on rules and regulations.  Instead, Jesus basically says, “Be willing.”  Be willing to let love guide you.  Be willing to love and to be loved.

The course of love between Dale and Shane, the course of love that leads one to love others—all might seem like it’s just the natural flow of things.  But really, Dale could have easily gone on by himself—unwilling to risk, try something new, or let someone in.  Shane could he easily gone a different direction—unwilling to explore a new faith perspective, a new friend, or a new direction in life.
Instead, their openness has brought them here, with us, today.

Willingness is that ability to stop for a second and just suppose—maybe I don’t have all the answers myself.  Perhaps I could let down my guard with this person.  Just maybe there’s something ahead I haven’t even imagined.

Willingness is cracking the door open—to possibility, to love, and to God.  Willingness is unclenching a fist so that the hand can be relaxed, open in a new way.  It’s an open hand that can then actually hold or be held by another.

This marriage is celebrated in the Season of Advent, the time when Christians prepare to hear again the Good News of Christmas—that God was willing to come into the world in the form of a helpless little baby to show us what love looks like.

And so, Dale and Shane, my prayer for you is simply that your willingness will continue.  Be willing to risk, willing to grow, willing to screw up, willing to say you’re sorry, willing to get up again the next day and fall more deeply into love.  Be willing to turn your lives and your love over and over again to God.

As Dale and Shane make their vows and we offer our support, let us also vow to be more open, more available, more attentive, and more willing for God’s love to live in us.

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

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Praying for God to Come

Blue ChristmasA short homily offered at Evensong for a Blue Christmas Service, offering us to come together with others in order to acknowledge the “blue” feelings that might occur during the holidays. For many who have lost a loved one, this is a time of sharp loneliness. For others, who have lost a relationship, health, a job, or had a financial setback it may be a time of pain, confusion, or fear.   The scripture readings are Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 and John 11:21-26a. 

Listen to the homily HERE.

The following poem by Thomas Merton, “Advent” was included in the remarks.

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect! Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

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Pots and Possibilities

Festive face jugs

A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017.  The scripture readings are Isaiah 64:1-9Psalm 80:1-7, 16-181 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you’ve been in the rectory living room, you’ve probably noticed some of the pottery on the bookshelves.  Certainly the pottery has noticed you:  because the pottery are face jugs, and they keep watch.

Face jugs, these pottery jugs with faces on them have an uncertain history. Most of mine come from the Piedmont and Mountain areas of North Carolina. Some say the practice of making jugs with faces on them came from African slaves and had to do with burial rites or memorial practices. Another tradition suggests that the ugliest face jugs were made to keep moonshine, and they were made ugly so they’d scare children away.

I like them because they come from the earth near where my people are from and they make me laugh.

And sometimes, they make me think. I wonder about the faces. Was the potter thinking about a particular person? When the face is especially ugly or contorted, was the potter using the clay as a kind of exercise in aggression– making a version of someone in particular’s face, and then making it look really ugly? Or was the potter somehow conveying something the potter felt deep inside?

If anyone has ever worked with clay, you know that the object made really does come from the potter. It is shaped by the potter’s hands. Its image comes from the potter’s mind. The potter’s time and talent are expressed in the object. And sometimes, given the ingredients of the glaze or paint that might be used (especially in the old days of using lead glazes); the potter actually risks his or her personal health in crafting the object.

In firing up a kiln, in overseeing the process, sometimes the potter bears marks or wounds that result directly from the process of making pottery. For all of these reasons, it makes sense that Isaiah would use the image of the potter and the clay to express an aspect of our creation and existence from God.

In today’s reading Isaiah begins by lamenting the condition of the world. “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence . . . to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” Isaiah is tired of people ignoring God and God’s ways, and so he’s asking God a question that comes up again and again in the scriptures, and maybe comes up in our own prayers—“Get ‘em, God. Make them pay. Why do you let the wicked prosper? Why don’t you do more for the poor and the oppressed?” Isaiah goes on for a bit, ranting and railing at God. But then, in the midst of his prayer, Isaiah begins to reconsider. Like a little child who throws a tantrum and then finally, exhausted, falls into the arms of her mother, Isaiah falls back into the arms of God. “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.” And then, the line I like so much, “we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

Isaiah begins in a vengeful, angry place and eventually moves to one of compassion. We might expect that in a prophet from the Hebrew Scriptures, but we may be surprised when we encounter language of wrath and vengeance from Jesus.

But that’s what it sounds like in today’s Gospel. Jesus speaks out of a tradition of Jewish apocalyptic literature, an old tradition in which people of faith looked to God to come and save them, especially when things in this world looked bad. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, Ezekiel, and especially Daniel, all contain sections though of as apocalyptic literature—literature that looks for the end of the world as we know it, as God ushers in a new reality for those who have kept the faith.

Christ tells us that everything has a process. Baking a loaf of bread has a preparation time, a time in which changes can be made and the actual bread formed and set, and then a time when the bread is baked and either must be eaten, given away, or will go bad. Everything has a process. People are born, grow mature, and eventually die. The world itself is created, groans and grows through maturity, and will one day come to an end.

But Jesus is saying simply this: The process continues. God is not finished with us yet. The end is not quite here. It may be tomorrow. Or it may be hundreds or thousands of years away. We don’t know, and it doesn’t accomplish much to muse on it. It will come when it will come. The point is—we’re in the middle now. There is still time—for us, and for others.

We are like the finished face jugs and we are NOT.  We are like them in that we are being fashioned into something rare and unique by a potter. The clay has been dug, we’re being shaped and formed and molded, but there’s still time for contours and new expressions and new inputs.  The face jugs have already gone into the kiln. They’ve been fired and hardened.  They are stuck with the faces the potter gave them: whether they sneer, or laugh, or have an evil grin, or gracious smile.

But we are still in God’s hands, able to be shaped and changed, and formed for good, formed for love.

Today we begin the season of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season of God making and remaking things new. The symbols are all around us. The purple reminds us of the penitence of Lent (and Advent is as good a time as any for spiritual house cleaning) and of Jesus’ royalty—a kingship not like this world. The Advent wreath is another symbol of our waiting for increasing light, as each Sunday, another candle is lit. Those who keep Advent Calendars wait actively, as they open one window or door each day– a reminder that every new day brings a surprise from God.

The lessons we’ve heard today are not meant to scare us into right living or to make us so preoccupied with the Christ’s coming that we miss the holy right before us. Just the opposite. The intention is that we treasure each day, live it as best we can, and rejoice in the fact that we are all in process.

The world may seem beyond repair, but the good news is that God isn’t finished with it yet. Our families may seem broken, but God isn’t finished yet. Our relationships may seem completely out of shape, our own lives might seem like a badly formed clump of clay, but the good news—the really great news, is that God the Potter is not finished with us yet.

May this season bring us increasing light, increasing joy, and increasing love.

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

 

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On the Eve of Advent

night_sky
At our Advent Quiet Day this morning, we explored some of the Marian poetry of Thomas Merton. Especially fitting for the day (and tomorrow’s full moon) is this poem:

Charm with your stainlessness these winter nights,
Skies, and be perfect! Fly, vivider in the fiery dark, you quiet meteors,
And disappear.
You moon, be slow to go down,
This is your full!

The four white roads make off in silence
Towards the four parts of the starry universe.
Time falls like manna at the corners of the wintry earth.
We have become more humble than the rocks,
More wakeful than the patient hills.

Charm with your stainlessness these nights in Advent,
holy spheres,
While minds, as meek as beasts,
Stay close at home in the sweet hay;
And intellects are quieter than the flocks that feed by starlight.

Oh pour your darkness and your brightness over all our
solemn valleys,
You skies: and travel like the gentle Virgin,
Toward the planets’ stately setting,

Oh white full moon as quiet as Bethlehem!

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A Kingdom of Service

baby kingA sermon for Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Psalm 95:1-7aEphesians 1:15-23, and Matthew 25:31-46.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

In 2008, Peggielene Bartels was going about her life. She worked as a secretary at the Ghanaian Embassy in Washington, DC, and kept busy supplementing her income by working as a receptionist at a nursing home. In spare time, she would take Ghanaian art and crafts to church bazaars and markets, raising extra money as she could.

But then she got a call from Ghana. Her uncle the king had died. The village elders had met, and Peggielene Bartels had been made King of Otuam.  King Peggy.

Since that phone call, she has continued her routine in Washington DC, but travels to Ghana whenever she can to preside at court, help solve village complaints, and continue to do what she can to improve the lives of her village.

In our day, when the news is full of examples of men in authority abusing that authority, and worse—not even comprehending the problem, it’s helpful to know about King Peggy.

What I love most about King Peggy is the way she understands her calling as one of service. In her memoir, King Peggy: An American Secretary, Her Royal Destiny, and the Inspiring Story of How She Changed an African Village, she writes about working in the embassy one day—running this way and that, covering details, doing everything necessary to make a reception happen. She noticed a phrase on the wall that said, “He who wants to be king in the future must first learn to serve.” Peggy says she barely slowed down as laughed to herself, “This king serves, sure enough. I serve coffee.  I serve tea.”

That sense of service, and its refusing to stand above or apart from others, is at the heart of the meaning of Christ the King Sunday, this last Sunday before the Season of Advent.

Jesus himself tried to reinterpret what a king looks like, as he said, “My kingship is not of this world.”  When pressed by Pontius Pilate, “But, are you a king?” Jesus simply responded, “You say that I am….”  Jesus is the sort of king his own mother sang about, one who would

show mercy …,
scatter the proud …,
cast down the mighty …,
lift up the lowly …,
and fill the hungry with good things…

One way of understanding the person and work of Jesus begins in the Hebrew scriptures: the idea of a shepherd king.  King David is the forerunner and today’s first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, deepens this image. The shepherd is one who seeks out and saves, who finds who’s lost and brings her home.  The shepherd king offers shelter, nurture, and protection.

At the same time, the shepherd is no wimp.  He shows strength when needed and encourages the problem sheep to shape up or move along. The shepherd king is not sentimental, like some Victorian watercolor of a blond, blue-eyed, “Good Shepherd.”  Instead, the Good Shepherd is tough as nails when he needs to be, is ready to risk his life for the sheep, but still treats each one with gentleness and care.

A similar idea appears in our Gospel. Now, if you haven’t been in church for a while, you might have a tendency to fixate on the language of judgment, judgment between the sheep and the goats.  Judgment, unfortunately, is all some people hear from religion.  But notice that in today’s scripture and everywhere else, judgment is none of our business. It doesn’t belong to us.  It doesn’t belong to any religious leaders.  Judgment belongs to God alone.

Our task is to imitate the shepherd-king and look after one another, help each other, especially watch out for the least well-off and the neediest.

Jesus explains that his is a kingdom of service, a commonwealth of helping others:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for 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.

At every turn, Jesus chooses service over privilege. When he enters Jerusalem for what will be his final days (the entrance we remember on Palm Sunday), Jesus rides on a donkey—risking ridicule and comedy. He rejects a crown, and so his persecutors have to make him one of briers and thorns. He rejects power, prestige, and popularity—he even rejects success, at least in the eyes of the world.

He serves alongside us, in front of us, in back of us. Jesus is the king who is mopping the floor after we’ve gone home from the party.

One of the earliest stories about Jesus has to do with the moment he approaches his cousin, John the Baptist.  Jesus wants to be baptized.  But John says, ‘No. It should be the other way around. I should be baptized by you.”  But Jesus insists—he wants to be baptized by John just like other people.  Jesus wants to stand in that same water over which the Spirit of God hovered at creation; the water through which the children of Israel were led to freedom. Jesus shows his humanity and his humility. As he is baptized in the love and mercy of God, he’s also baptized into the service of humanity, so that he, too, can then invite others into the water—for refreshment, for cleansing, for healing, and for renewal.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize Jason Watters.  Baptism marks a beginning—a new beginning in love, in relationships, in worldview, in self-understanding, but also it marks a deepening into Christian service.  Like King Peggy of Otuam, Jason might his time filled with serving coffee, or providing calm in the chaos of feeding hundreds on Thanksgiving.  Who knows where the Spirit may lead next.

For us, whether we remember our own baptism or come from a completely different perspective and simply take what we can from this sacrament—today is a good day to renew our own sense of service.  Question and reject the kind of authority that props itself up at the expense of others.  Instead, let us be a part of the kind of authority that sneaks up through compassion, care, and service.

In the scripture readings earlier, we heard beautiful words from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.  May they come true for Jason, for us, and for all–that we may be given that “spirit of wisdom and revelation [that] … with the eyes of [our] heart enlightened, [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called [us], what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe,….”

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

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Uncovering Talents

digging for treasureA sermon for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017.  The scripture readings are Zephaniah 1:7,12-18Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 121 Thessalonians 5:1-11, and Matthew 25:14-30

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s an old preacher’s story about two farmers. Bob and Carl meet over the fence one day, and Bob says, “Well, Carl are you going to plant corn this year?” “No,” says Carl. “I’ve been reading about a blight that afflicts corn, so I think I’d better not.” “Well,” asks Bob, “How about potatoes? Are you going to plant potatoes?” “No, I don’t think so, Carl says. I’m worried about the potato mite.” “Well, Carl, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you going to plant?” Carl pauses for a minute and looks at Bob and finally says, “You know, I’m don’t think I’ll plant anything this year. I’m just going to play it safe.”

The Gospel today is about resisting the urge to “play it safe.” It’s about investing—about investing money, surely.  But it’s also (and even more) about investing one’s energy, one’s ability, one’s faith, and one’s life.

When the Gospel speaks of “talents,” it’s referring to a particular sum of money, a kind of currency. Our modern word, talent, is derived from this older talent. Ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans spoke of a talent of gold or a talent of silver—meaning a weight, a measurement of something that translated into money. Scholars don’t really know exactly how much a talent would have been in scripture, but the sense is that it would have been a lot of money to an ordinary servant.

The story is an old one, perhaps told in the oral tradition and handed down to Jesus, who tells it in his own context.  Today, when we reflect on a biblical story that speaks of slaves, we in no way normalize the practice of slavery, but rather, we notice the movement of history, confess our troubled history, and seek to hear God’s message for today. In Jesus’ day (as with antiquity), slavery was a given.  Over time, both Greek and Roman cultures created laws protecting slaves, and both Stoicism and Christianity taught that all people are equal.

In the story that Jesus tells, the first two servants invest their money and they get results. But the third servant goes to the boss and tries to explain himself. “Sir, I know you to be a hard man, often unfair and rarely understanding, and so I was afraid. I went and hid the talent in the ground, but look here, here it is, exactly as you gave it to me.”

Jesus tells this story in the context of other stories having to do with the kingdom of God. He’s trying to help his disciples see that the kingdom of God is unfolding around them and even from within them, if they will just notice.  “Look!  Believe! Let faith overcome fear.”

Fear is at the heart of the problem with the third servant, the one who simply buries his money.  He says he’s afraid of the boss, but I wonder if he isn’t also afraid of the possibility of other things, too.  He’s afraid of failure, afraid of losing control of the money entrusted to him, afraid of what others might say if he comes in second or third place… on and on, his fears must have gone. Fear paralyzes this servant. Fear freezes him, prevents growth, and separates him from action, moving him into isolation.

Some people have noticed that the word, “FEAR” can stand as a kind of acronym—especially when it seems to control us. FEAR might sometimes feel like “false evidence appearing real.”

Fear does that, doesn’t it? It’s tempting to play it safe. If we play it safe with our emotions, then we don’t ever look foolish. If we play it safe in relationships, then we never risk getting hurt. If we play it safe as new opportunities in work come along, then we never risk rejection. If we play it safe with God, then maybe we won’t ever have to change anything about the way we live, or talk, or treat people, or spend money, or spend our leisure time.

Whenever Jesus spoke, people had the option to play it safe or to move forward with the risk of faith. Scripture tells us about some of those who wrestled with just this issue—Nicodemus, the Roman Centurion, Saint Thomas, Saint Peter. But the death and resurrection of Jesus transformed their faith and deepened it.

The church throughout the ages has wrestled with this question—what do we do with the Good News we have received? Do we sit on it, write it down and bind it in leather and place it on just the right table in our homes? Or do we move out, inspired by the Holy Spirit to continue the risk, to continue the sharing, to continue the investment?

That third servant in the parable must have thought he was breaking even—by burying his money in the ground, he avoided risk, but he must have felt like he at least didn’t lose anything. But he also forgot about that nasty little thing called depreciation. He forgot that while the money is buried in the ground, the rest of the world is changing, and so what is buried or hidden away actually decreases in value.

We know that’s the case with money (called “talents” in today’s scripture). But it’s also that way with all those things we know as talents. If one has the talent of singing, but doesn’t use it, it eventually goes away. If you play golf for a few years and then put your clubs away, your game is going to suffer.  Sadly, we all bury a talent or two along the way. We do it sometimes because of fear, sometimes because of fatigue. We bury a talent sometimes because we’ve been hurt in the past, or maybe when we expressed a particular talent it was ridiculed or went unnoticed.

As kingdom people, as people with faith in Jesus Christ who makes all things new, we have the opportunity to create a community that supports one another and encourages each other’s talents. When we see someone who has buried a talent or a gift or an ability, it’s an opportunity for to gently hand that person a shovel and suggest they dig it up and uncover the treasure.

When I think of people who’ve been able to move through fear and make something new, I think of people like Mohammad Yunus, who founded the Gremeen Bank.  When he looked at some of the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, he was able to turn fear (false evidence appearing real) into F-E-A-R representing “face everything and recover.”  By pioneering the practice of micro-lending (in which collateral comes in the form of trust and loans are often very small but very important), Yunus went against the advice of banks and government, to create a system of “village banks.”  With over 2,500 branches, serving more than 80,000 villages, the Grameen Bank collects an average of $1.5 million in weekly installments. Of the borrowers, 97% are women and over 97% of the loans are paid back, a recovery rate higher than any other banking system. Through micro-lending, talents are uncovered and encouraged, grown and multiplied.

There are lots of opportunities for us to help uncover some of the talents around us—the monetary ones and the creative ones. When you hear someone near you singing well, compliment them and suggest they think about singing in the choir.  If you see someone who seems to enjoy the worship here, suggest they join the acolytes and help us at the altar.  If someone enjoys cooking and sharing their food—suggest they help with coffee hour, or hospitality at Holy Trinity, or the Saturday supper.  If someone strikes you as especially sharp or faithful or generous—suggest they stand for vestry, or another board of the church.

We are in a season of stewardship, and Holy Trinity needs everyone and every gift.  We need your money—and so, invest it well in the secular markets, but also invest it well in this sacred place and the people who meet God in this place. But also, as we celebrate Ingathering Sunday with the offering of our tithes and monetary pledges, we will also offer the talents and volunteer energy of our parish.  If you look in the weekend newsletter, you’ll see a variety of ministries listed, with the contacts for each.

Wherever there may be buried talents, may the Lord show us where to start digging. Wherever there is fear, may it be banished and dispersed. And may God give us the faith to risk and invest deeply.

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

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Waiting in God

Second ComingA sermon offered on November 12, 2017, the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost.  The scripture readings are Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16Psalm 701 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and Matthew 25:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Earlier this week, I saw a friend who is not a church goer.  In fact, he’s Hindu but extremely respectful and curious about Christianity. We talked about a number of different things, and then he said, “Well, changing the topic, I’d like to ask you about something.  What do you say to your congregation about the shootings in Texas?”

I hesitated, trying to answer honestly, and so, I said that, regarding the shooting in a church in Texas–as with so many other issues—we name the evil and pray for the victims, but then I tend to try to talk about whatever aspects we might have some influence over—usually that comes down to ourselves.  I often can’t influence the violent thoughts and impulses of others, but I can pray that God would help with those aspects of myself.  If you’ve heard me preach and teach—you will recognize that way of dealing with hard issues.

But I wasn’t entirely happy with my answer to my friend.  A part of what I’m doing is waiting.  As I try to make sense of a culture that continues to lower the bar for decency and public discourse, I’m waiting for people to get tired of it and say, “Enough.”  As person after person uses a gun in anger or frustration or stupidity or accident, I’m waiting for those who profit from the weapons industry to wake up in the middle of the night with a conscience and say, “Enough.”  I’m waiting for answers, waiting for direction, and (to some extent) waiting on God to step in and fix things. I’m waiting of Christ to come back, clean house, and make everything new.

Even as I notice myself “waiting” on God in so many ways, I hate waiting in most other areas of life. Waiting, usually, is not easy—whether it’s waiting for coffee, traffic, or the subway. We wait for appointments, for returned phone calls or emails.

But we wait for the big things, too. We wait for test results. We wait for graduation, for a visit by a family member. We wait for a sickness to pass or a disease to end. We wait for the right person to come. We wait for an appointment with the specialist, only to show up on the long-anticipated day to be told calmly, “the doctor is running about an hour and a half late, but if you’d like coffee, please help yourself.”

Waiting can be an exercise of faith. Waiting can be faithful waiting when it is active, when it has meaning, when it is productive in some way. When it’s not only waiting FOR God, but perhaps, waiting also WITH God.

But waiting can become procrastination.  It can be empty and fruitless. Waiting is worthless when it becomes an excuse for doing nothing. You know that kind of procrastination:

I think of when a couple has issues in their relationship, and so they focus on something in the future and they wait: for a house, for a baby, for better job, for more income. They focus so much on that future goal that they lose the opportunity in the present for the deepening of that relationship. And so, strangely, and to the surprise of others, the relationship fails at the very moment they achieve the long-awaited goal. The waiting has not worked.

I think of all those issues about which we say to ourselves, “I’ll get around to that when I’m retired.” New hobbies, books to be read, people to spend time with, places to visit— all are put off and postponed for what is planned to be the golden time of retirement. But the stock market intervenes, or there is sickness, or there is any number of unpredicted obstacles, and the waiting has not worked.

The Gospel today has something to say about waiting fruitfully, about being alert and prepared and getting the things done one needs to do, in the waiting. In this Gospel, Jesus teaches that if we wait for the future and do nothing in the meantime, the future will be upon us, and we may be caught unprepared.

A wedding in ancient Palestine involved traveling around from house to house. And so the bridegroom and his party might visit a number of places before coming to the place where the bride and her bridesmaids are waiting. Then, as now, weddings parties were often delayed. And so, the bridesmaids who were waiting should have known that the bridegroom would be late. No promises were made. It was a part of their job to be prepared. But when the groom’s party appears, half of the bridesmaids are ready, and the other half is caught without enough oil to see.

Jesus tells this story to instruct his followers about the nature of waiting. Matthew tells this story to the Christians in his community in an effort to say to them, “Don’t just gaze off into heaven and wait for Jesus to come again. There’s work to be done. There’s love to be shared. There’s bread to be broken. The kingdom of God is like a wedding feast that welcomes all. It’s like a party, but if your waiting slows you down in the present, you just might miss all the fun.”

In our Gospel, the bridegroom eventually comes. Throughout scripture, the bridegroom is often a symbol for Jesus Christ. The Church, itself is the bride, and so we wait. We wait for the full return of Jesus Christ, at the end of times, whatever that may look like. We wait for all of those smaller joys that we hope will come into our lives. We wait for a new administration to be formed in our country, we wait for stability in the financial markets, we wait for work or love or health. But the real question for each of us is this: how do we spend our time in the waiting?

Faithful waiting includes prayer, leaning on others, and acting with faith.

Prayer
The Gospel suggests we fill our lamps. We prepare ourselves by filling ourselves with pray and the study of the things of God—they sustain us like good oil in a old lamp.

Leaning on Others
We prepare ourselves by meeting the risen Christ when we serve the poor and when we serve by their side. We prepare ourselves by sacrificial giving—both with our time, our talents, and our money. We prepare ourselves with the simple stuff of bread and wine, bread and wine turned into Bread of Heaven and Cup of Salvation.

Acting with faith
Leaping as well as investing.
We prepare for the future feast of God by savoring each day as a gift, by taking each new day as an extraordinary morsel of food, letting it rest on the tongue, letting each day be tasted and smelled and touched and loved and shared and enjoyed.

In the 4th century, Saint Basil preached powerfully about living faithfully in the Now: He asked,

What keeps you from giving now? Isn’t the poor person there? Aren’t your own warehouses full? Isn’t the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? “I’m not doing any harm,” you say. “I just want to keep what I own, that’s all.” You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone’s use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. (Sermon on Luke).

Sometimes we wait.  Sometimes we act.  In both cases and especially in the middle, may we be sustained by the words of the Psalmist: “Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy and blessed are those who put their trust in God.” (Psalm 34:8)

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

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