Human (Along with All the Saints)

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 years ago, the Episcopal Church changed the list of official scripture readings that are used on Sundays. In the back of our Prayer Book is a listing of these, called a lectionary, and it’s arranged in a three-year cycle: years A, B, and C. What the General Convention in 2006 did was to substitute that listing with what’s called the Revised Common Lectionary. Overall, the newer lectionary exposes us to readings that the church otherwise might not read, but where the changes are most obvious is on certain holy days—and All Saints’ Day is one of them.

We no longer hear those majestic words from Ecclesiasticus, “Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. … those who ruled in their kingdoms, … those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; …those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; ….(Ecclesiasticus 44). We still get a bit of Revelation, with the “new heaven and new earth,” but we no longer get the Beatitudes as the Gospel. That particular Gospel was great because a sermon would basically “write itself” from the words

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. |
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled….

While a part of me misses those older, more familiar readings for All Saints’ Day, I’m learning to appreciate the newer choices. This year, in which we get Martha and Mary, it’s just as good as those other readings, if not better. It’s perhaps “better” because Mary and Martha seem so real. They seem a little like us.

Sometimes Mary and Martha are portrayed in overly-simplistic terms. We hear the story about Jesus eating in their home. You remember the one: Martha was busy getting food on the table and got frustrated with her sister Mary, who was simply sitting there, listening to Jesus. Sometimes they are used to symbolize two aspects of the spiritual life: Mary the contemplative, and Martha the active. But they remain thin characters—a bit stylized and idealized.

But in the story we hear in today’s Gospel, when their brother Lazarus has died, we see both Mary and Martha at full strength and in full humanity. Mary sees Jesus and honors him as a teacher and friend, but she doesn’t hold back. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Had we read earlier in Chapter 11, we would have heard her sister Martha say the same words. I love what this shows us about Mary and Martha—they are secure enough in their relationship with Jesus that they can be honest with him. They can get angry, be hurt, be disappointed, question him and question the will of God. And THIS is precisely what a saint is.

In the New Testament the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense, one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” Again, in helping the Corinthian church sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians. And finally, in Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints—some who have died for their faith, others who have died natural deaths—but ordinary believers made extraordinary by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And it is a grand and glorious company.
. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”

But more than anything else, a saint does what Martha and Mary show us how to do: talk honestly with Jesus the Son of God. Be honest with our emotion—our anger, sadness, jubilation, worry, and every possible feeling we can name or can’t name—and make it into prayer.

Sometimes our feelings lead the way and only later might be followed by prayer. A faithful response to death is not always quiet, prayerful, and pious. Faithful people wail at their bereavement and rail at God. Faithful people tear clothes and sometimes tear up other things. Faithful people respond as humans, because that’s how we’re created. Jesus as Jesus wept human tears when he heard that Lazarus had died, we weep human tears when we grieve.

The great children’s hymn, “I sing a song of the saints of God” pictures saints in all kinds of ways and situations.

I sing a song of the saints of God,
Patient and brave and true,
Who toiled and fought and lived and died
For the Lord they loved and knew.

And one was a doctor, and one was a queen,
And one was a shepherdess on the green;
They were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

They loved their Lord so dear, so dear,
And his love made them strong;
And they followed the right for Jesus’ sake
The whole of their good lives long.

And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
And one was slain by a fierce wild beast;
And there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
Why I shouldn’t be one too.
Why not, indeed?

The two feast days of All Saints’ and All Souls’ are always a little confused in our liturgical celebrations and in our hearts. All Saints’ initially was for remembering the “red-letter” saints, the famous ones, the ones in stained glass and sculpture. All Souls’ Day was more intimate, more personal, for us to remember those we have loved who have died. The two days are days for remembering the Resurrection and clinging to the assurance of eternal life.

Thanks be to God for the stories of the saints, for those lives who inspire us and strengthen us, but also who remind us that we get closest to God by being fully human. Thanks be to God for those we have loved who have died in faith. May they rest in peace and rise in glory. And finally, thanks be to God for giving us this life of faith, that keeps us together, one family, through life and through death and into life eternal.

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

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Faith to Have Vision

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:

Today’s Gospel brings to life one of the central stained-glass windows at Holy Trinity: The Healing of Bartimaeus.  And this story suggests a deep and mysterious connection between believing and receiving vision. The story and words of Jesus encourage us to step out, to move forward with belief, and then to trust that our belief will take us to a new place of seeing.

The story about Bartimaeus takes place as Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It is near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. All this time, Jesus has been telling his disciples that the kingdom of God is in their midst—right in front of them— if they will only see it.

He tells them about God’s love for all people, if they’ll just notice it. Jesus tells them that they (and we) will all see God, one day. But the disciples keep scratching their heads, trying to understand, trying to make it all fit together, trying to make sense out of what Jesus is doing in their midst.

The disciples here are a little like a person who sees a rainbow, but then runs inside to get the camera. By the time they’ve returned, the rainbow is gone. Over and over again the disciples miss the miracle because they’re reasoning, or arguing, or trying to predict Jesus’ next move.

There is some biblical irony when the disciples (who often are blinded by their own arrogance, their own egos, their own hopes, even), encounter this Bartimaeus, who is really blind. And yet, even with his blindness, Bartimaeus sees more than the disciples. He sees Jesus for who he is. Bartimaeus lets his faith take him forward, lead him into the presence of Jesus, and risks by asking Jesus for the thing he wants. He hears Jesus approaching and yells, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Jesus hears the faith in Bartimaeus’s voice. Jesus hears his desperation and his suffering. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus says, “let me see again.” Jesus says that the man’s faith has made him well, and so sends the man off. Bartimaeus regains his sight, but instead of going off, he begins to follow Jesus, instead.

We know that healing in our world doesn’t always come that quickly or easily, does it? Too many of us, too many we know, have wrestled with sickness or a broken family relationship, grief or addiction for too long. Perhaps we have asked for help with just as faithful prayers as Bartimaeus. And yet, the healing hasn’t happened yet, and we’re forgiven (I think) if we begin to lose faith and become a little cynical.

This is where faith comes in, has come in, and always will come in.

The people who heard Jeremiah’s words so long ago, words we heard in our first reading this morning, must have been a little cynical. What evidence did they have that God was truly going to help them return home? Uprooted, robbed of home and livelihood, a people turned into refugees, how should they hear these happy words of Jeremiah?

The people of Israel must have wondered if these were empty words. Violence continues. Useless warfare keeps on happening. There are more and more refugees, and even as science progresses, we don’t use that science to feed the world.

In Jeremiah’s day, as in ours, many doubt. Others get angry and wrestle with the words of God.  Some become cynical.  

But a few—then, as now.  Laugh.  We sometimes laugh out of nervousness or fear. But also, we sometimes just have to laugh at the audacity and outrageousness of God.  

One of the most famous stories of someone laughing at the promises of God is referred to in our Holy Trinity icon, as we see Abraham and Sarah on each side. In the middle shows the angels who bring the news of God’s promises.

But when Abraham and Sarah hear that they are going to be parents in old age, they laugh.

The writer Frederic Buechner points out the graphic nature of the Hebrew in these verses. He recalls that Abraham “falls on his face and laughs.” And Sarah laughs too. And so, when she gives birth to a son, it’s no wonder that she names the child “Isaac” or, “laughter” in Hebrew.

Buechner reminds us that like it says in the Letter to the Hebrews, that faith is the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” faith is also about laughter at the outrageousness of God’s work in our world. 

When have you trusted what you’ve sensed or heard from God, and people laughed?  Maybe when you joined a church.  Maybe when you joined the Episcopal Church. Maybe when you decided to unite with THIS Episcopal Church. 

People often laugh when they hear hopes born of faith. Back in 1896, they must have laughed at Serena Rhinelander, as she began to outline her plans for a mission house and church, here on East 88th Street.  People laughed at Father Paul in 1950, when he led Holy Trinity from being a mission of St. James’s Church to being our own congregation.  People have laughed at Sue Chandler, as she began Search & Care. They’ve laughed at Gretchen Buchenholtz, as she started a children’s playgroup that became Merricats Castle School, which grew into the Association to Benefit Children. People have laughed as crazy Holy Trinity reopened for worship as soon as we could in July 2020, and they’ve probably laughed as we’ve continued on, trying to be faithful.

When people hear some of my hopes for this parish, they continue to laugh. My hopes of people returning to church, of new Sunday school programs for children, of particular programs for older adults that are not just what a nonprofit can offer but actually suggest a way to age with Christ, to grow older, holier, and happier all at the same time.

Just get me started, and I can talk about a new kitchen in the basement of St. Christopher’s House, and renovations to make an accessible entrance. I’ll tell you about ideas for accessible restrooms, a meeting room for classes where we can actually hear each other, a restored belltower, a new garden patio in the East side of the front garden…. on and on and on.

Just as it wasn’t always easy to stay faithful in the past, there will surely be challenges in the future. New and different parishioners and volunteers with new and different strengths and weaknesses.   New visitors and members and gifts and abilities.

You may laugh, but as Buechner reminds us, “The reason [Abraham and Sarah] laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they’d ever had hadn’t been half wild enough” (Peculiar Treasures, 153).

Abraham and Sarah laughed.  Mary laughed for joy at the wildness of God’s promises. I bet Bartimaeus laughed, and if we were to look closely enough in our window, we might just see it.

And so we are called to live between seeing and believing, in the place of faith, grateful that it is also a place of laughter. May God continue to give us faith, so we can have eyes to see, and keep us filled with laughter. 

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

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Living Towards Others

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 love the honesty in today’s Gospel. We see James and John, sons of Zebedee BEFORE they show themselves to be the future St. John (the beloved disciple, the one who Jesus sees as family from the cross, as he entrusts John to his mother Mary, and his mother to his friend, John. This is James, more like Jimmy, long before he is known as James the Greater and patron saint of Spain.

No, here, we see plain old James and John who are a lot like people we know. Maybe even a lot like us. They are so eager to get ahead, to make sure they get their due, that they come right out and ask Jesus to help them understand what their assignments will be in the future kingdom of God.

“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  I suppose we have to give them points for honesty. But Jesus tries to help them see that the they have no idea what they’re asking for because the kingdom of God is a kingdom of reversals. Jesus will be elevated by first making himself low.

The Reading from Hebrews refers to this as the “reverent submission” of Christ.  In those beautiful words the anonymous writer of that scripture says, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

Greatness comes not through position or power, but through service, by putting others first, and the self second (or third, or fourth, or fifth.)

We need to say one thing for certain: and that is, that suffering is not always changed into redemption. Suffering, itself, is not to be glorified. At yesterday’s Global Mission Fair, the Rt. Reverend Dickson Chilongani, Bishop of the Diocese of Central Tanganyika, Tanzania, was talking about the various ministries in his diocese.  Among one of the health issues some of his people face, the bishop almost casually mentioned leprosy.  Several of us looked at each other, as if to ask, “Did I hear that right?”  I looked it up later and found that according to the CDC, some 2 million people in the world are still disabled by leprosy, and in Tanzania and elsewhere, it still has social stigma, like we read about in the scriptures.

We are called, with others, to work to alleviate all who suffer. There is no redemption in pointless suffering, and we blaspheme if we in any way suggest that it might be a part of God’s will.

Rather, it is the will of God to redeem, to bring to life, to restore and we are most faithful when we do everything we can to lift one another out of such suffering.

A book I’m reading has reminded me of how the poet Walt Whitman served and suffered, and in so doing, found his own greatness.  Greatness, for Whitman, didn’t come by being a cultural superstar—either in New York or in Philadelphia. But the depth of his writing emerged from his own witness of suffering.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Whitman was living with his mother in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, picking up odd jobs, carousing around town, and really looking for himself, as much as anything or anyone else. His brother George enlisted in the Union Army, and the next year, it was feared that George was killed in battle.  Walt Whitman left Brooklyn and went in search of his brother, but in searching, he found a vocation, a purpose, a life-giving force.  Whitman began volunteering as a nurse, of sorts, visiting soldiers, writing letters for them to their families, getting them small things they needed, listening to their stories, accompanying many in death.

Whitman felt more alive, even as he exhausted himself. He became a witness to the senseless suffering of the war, but also to a higher nobility of those who served on behalf of others. The Civil War ended up saving the Union. But even more, it offered salvation to Walt Whitman. He died at the age of 72, exhausted, with a combination of tuberculosis, mal-nutrition, and selfless living. But his suffering was very much on behalf of others and opened beauty to generations.

Jesus invites us to feel and be affected by others. Suffering that is on behalf of others can be of a particular quality.  In today’s first reading Isaiah speaks of a Suffering Servant. In words we also read on Good Friday, we typically see Jesus as the one who has “borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. . . by whose bruises we are healed.” But the interpretation of Isaiah by faithful Jews before Jesus (and after) is also relevant. Israel understood itself as the suffering servant. As the nation suffered but remained faithful, others would be see and would be brought to God. Through the suffering of a remnant, the whole world might be saved.

The idea that redemptive suffering is communal rather than individual may sound odd in a culture as self-focused as ours.  But if I think about it for a minute, it invites me to worry less about what I, alone, might accomplish. It encourages me to think and pray about what we might all be called to do together. In what ways might we be called to suffer so that others might know redemption and life? (Not a popular question, and not a question easily answered.)

When Jesus asks James and John if they are able, he is asking if they are able to endure suffering. He is also asking if they are willing to live a life of service. Jesus makes it clear that the kingdom of God is not built on power or greatness, but on serving one another.

Holy Trinity has a long history of community service.  We have done that and we continue to do it. St. Christopher’s Mission House has been a part of that. Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center is a part of that. Our Thanksgiving dinner preparation and deliver (which we’ll be doing next month, by the way) is a part of that.

But this parish has also offered service (a little bit of suffering alongside or suffering for) those who live in other parts of the world. The parish was active with Carpenter’s Kids, in Tanzania. Individuals have visited other places and created direct links for ongoing support and mission.  But I invite you to pray along with me about how God might be calling us to participate more fully in mission (that suffering with or suffering alongside or suffering on behalf of) people in another part of the world?

Several of our parish have visited Tanzania, and perhaps that is a place to think about. Others have relationships and we have former parishioners in Puerto Rico. Our link parish in London has a particular relationship with churches in Myanmar or Burma. Several here have supported Christians in Iraq.

Whenever we’re tempted to think like the apostles James and John and ask God “what’s in it for us?” may the Spirit remind us of Jesus’s invitation to share in his cup of service-even-unto-suffering, to share, to get involved, to sacrifice, and in so doing, be transformed more deeply into the Body of Christ. 

Each day at Morning Prayer, we conclude with a Prayer for Mission, one of which I will use now. Let us pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.

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Saved

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 disciples ask Jesus a good question. “Who can be saved?”

Though we may not always use that kind of language, and though we may even be a little embarrassed by the vocabulary of “the saved,” and the “un-saved”— it’s probably a question we ask, even if we don’t put it in those exact words. Who doesn’t want to be “saved,” if “salvation” means heaven, or peace, or serenity?  It’s because we want to be “saved” in one way or another that many of us are here today.

Of course, “salvation” can look like a lot of different things, depending on our perspective.

For some, salvation looks like eternal life; for others, it might look healthy children or a healthy spouse. For one or two, salvation might be like a day without pain, given a chronic condition that seems not to respond to medicine. Salvation might look like sober, thoughtful living, it might even look like prayer.

For others, salvation has more communal characteristics, it is saving on a more global scale. Salvation might look like equal rights and opportunities for all, regardless of race, or gender, or sexual orientation, or income, or physical or intellectual ability, or anything else. Salvation might look like everyone fed, and sheltered, able to call some place, somewhere “home.”

And for still yet others, “being saved” might be as simple as a moment or two that are worry and burden-free—not worried (for the minute) about the aging parent, no longer worried about the child who can’t quite fit in, no longer worried about the spouse who is looking for work, just no longer anxious, or preoccupied, but just alive.

Most of us do want salvation. And so, there’s a part of us that perhaps can relate to person in today’s gospel. He runs up to Jesus, excited, asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus has him reflect on the commandments, the basics. The man says, “oh yes, well, I’m pretty good with all of those.” “I haven’t killed anyone, I honor my parents, I don’t steal.”

The man who approaches Jesus understands religion as “cause and effect.” “If I do these things, then these other things will happen.”  This idea can be reinforced by a concentration on the Covenant of the Old Testament, but prophets and faithful seekers poke holes in this cause and effect system even in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In the reading from the Prophet Amos there’s a sense that the way of faith follows an expected pattern. But both in Amos and in our Gospel, this expected outcome ends in ambiguity.

Amos thunders about injustice and oppression. His words often indict the people, and he predicts the culture’s crumbling in, upon itself, because of its greed, because of its selfishness, because it ignores the way of God. But then Amos has these words,

Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate;[and] it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

“It may be,” says Amos. In other words, the future of those who seek God is not set in stone. It is open for change, for growth, for repentance, for (dare I say it) salvation.

There’s some room within what some might see as a forgone conclusion. There’s room for us to move toward God. There’s room for God’s grace to move in us.

In the Gospel, we might be cheering for the man who approaches Jesus:  Yes, we follow the way of faithfulness, and in so doing, we are saved, right? 

But Jesus interrupts the man’s expectations and says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man hears this and is shocked. He goes away, grieving.

We can get caught up on the part about selling possessions and go off on a tangent about wealth and poverty, but that’s a secondary point in Jesus’s conversation with the disciples today. 

The story continues as the disciples hear Jesus’s response to the man, and they’re confused. Here is this very good guy, who keeps all the commandments. He does exactly what the whole tradition has taught. He keeps the Sabbath day, he doesn’t lie, he certainly doesn’t murder. But then Jesus seems to reinterpret everything. He changes the rules. He broadens the perspective. In some ways he blows apart the whole idea of what it meant to follow God.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Ok, then, who can be saved?” And while Jesus doesn’t answer this question, he instead, poses the real question: Not, “who can be saved,” but “Who can do the saving.” And it’s that question, that Jesus answers:

It is God and God alone who does the saving. In God’s own way, in God’s own time, in God’s lavish self-giving, self-offering, overflowing love.

God saves us. God saves us from ourselves. God saves us from becoming too attached to our possessions, to our ideas, to our friends, to our family, even to our own sense of ourselves.

One interpretation can have story of the rich man and Jesus end in a pretty sad way. We read “when [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” But notice that it’s not his being rich that was the problem. The rich are neither better nor worse than the poor. The problem is that this man is reluctant to follow Jesus, he’s hesitant to let loose of the things that weigh him down, and to move toward salvation. The Bible story says he went away grieving. But I don’t think the story really ends.

I wonder if the man turned around and met up with Jesus the next day. We don’t know if later, after hearing about the amazing events in Jerusalem: Jesus’ crucifixion, his death on the cross, his rising again in glory… that the man might then have had a change of heart and decided to follow Jesus. The story leaves room for us to imagine. It leaves room for grace, just as our own lives—no matter where we might be in our own calling to follow Jesus, no matter what might currently stand in the way of our being more faithful disciples of Jesus, not matter what might seem to be in our way of living freely— there is room for us to respond to God. There is room for God’s justice to smash the barriers, God’s mercy to forget all sin, and God’s grace to break through and bring us closer.

From time to time, in train stations and in public places, sometimes at family reunions, we come across those earnest believers who look at us and ask, “Have you been saved?” I have a friend who has a great answer. He looks these people dead in the eye, smiles, and says, “Every day, friend. Every day, I’m saved.”

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God is eager to take away whatever burdens us, whatever makes us sluggish to follow him, whatever keeps us from love. God offers to empty our hands, to take whatever we cling to, and gently lay it aside, so that our hands might be free and open—our hands and our hearts, so that we can receive the love of God and share it with others. With God, all things are possible.

Who can be saved?

Every single one of us.

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

 

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Following St. Francis in Following Christ

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

The first reading today, from the Book of Job, is more poetry than preaching—until we remember its context. If you recall the story of Job, his whole dilemma asks the question, “Why bad things happen to good people?”  “If Job, who is faithful and loyal to God, loses his family, his livelihood, and eventually even his health—what good is faith in God?”  What we hear in today’s scriptures is a part of God’s answer, or really, God’s non-answer.

These words of God can sound intimidating and almost threatening, as though God is really trying to put Job in his place, to force Job into a kind of submission. 

But instead, I think God sings this symphony of creation as an invitation to Job. Get out of yourself and be a part of life. Step into the world. Look around. Smell. Taste. Feel. Get involved. The world is far more complicated and beautiful than you have imagined. Yes, it’s painful (and the reasons for that will have to wait for another time). But for now, move into the beauty of creation.

If you looked up the scripture readings appointed for today, you will be surprised at what we’re reading in church. That’s because I’m bending the rules for what scriptures are read on which Sundays by replacing the regular Sunday readings with the readings appointed for October 4, the day for remembering St. Francis of Assisi. Like many churches, we celebrate the day with the blessing of animals, but I also think it’s important, when thinking about Francis, to notice how Francis showed reverence towards all of creation—not just the animals. And in some ways, Francis allowed creation to preach to HIM, showing him to learn humility and follow Jesus more closely. 

Francis is famous for rescuing turtledoves that were on their way to being sold in the market, for preaching among birds and having them listen with attention. But my favorite St. Francis story is about Francis and the wolf in the little town of Gubbio.

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

The people prayed. Francis’s brothers prayed. And Francis walked into the forest to look for the wolf. Murray Bodo tells the rest of the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis followed Jesus in many ways, but chief among them was in the way of humility.  Recall that humility is related to hummus– of the earth. To be humble is to be down to earth– not high and might, floating ABOVE the earth. But also, not hiding in a hole, or allowed dust to be kicked in your face, or stationing yourself BELOW the earth.  Down to earth. Right-sized. Understanding one’s place in creation.

That’s what God is trying to get Job to understand in today’s first reading. The story of Job is complicated and raises huge questions about why bad things happen to good people, about what use being faithful is, if calamity still comes… but God’s answer to Job is that if Job will simply be JOB and allow God to be God, Job will find that he is taken care of and that things will work out all right. God’s words to Job are also an invitation for Job to notice a little more the creation all around him, to find in creation beauty, majesty, awe… and somehow, some way, this regard for creation will center Job in the presence of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to God and gives thanks that God has hidden certain things from the wise and intelligent, but reveals them to infants.  This is another place where Jesus says that we need to be childlike in order to understand the Christian message. 

The second part of the Gospel sounds comforting and soothing, but let’s really hear those words of Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”  Ok, so far, so good. Who of us doesn’t want help carrying whatever burden we might be under… but look what comes next: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”   Taking a yoke upon myself doesn’t sound all that appealing. I’m not a farm animal. After all, doesn’t God give me the intelligence I need to make good decisions, and aren’t I equipped with tools for the journey… and off I can go, rationalizing why I don’t want to “take his yoke upon me.”  I’m my own person. I can think for myself. etc, etc….

Jesus is calling us to humility. The yoke is not something rough and difficult like would be used for a farm animal. He promises it’s light. It’s invisible, in fact. But it’s strong and sure and never fades, because it’s made of love. If we allow Jesus to love us fully— every part of ourselves (the good, the bad, the embarrassing, the parts we might think are irredeemable…) … if we accept his love and try to return it, the yoke is in place, and we’re taking care of.

Jesus is inviting us to be childlike in our faith. In prayer and meditation, we sometimes lament what we call “monkey mind,” or “puppy mind,” as though out thoughts are so scattered, they’re like a puppy running in every direction. But rather than try to restrain the puppy, Jesus is inviting us to be a little more like a child who grows through exploration and play, until both he child and the puppy find calm and peace.

The life of St. Francis invites us to befriend creation, learn, and grow together. This has obvious implications for our care for the environment—not only in practical, energy and waste-saving ways, but also in deeper ways that make for lasting change. The life of Francis also reminds us of Jesus’s love of the poor—those poor in material wealth, but also those poor in body, mind, spirit, and soul. Even as we are befriended, we are to befriend. Even as Christ comes to serve us, he empowers us to serve one another.

I close with a favorite prayer of St. Francis:

May the power of your love, Lord Christ,
Fiery and sweet as honey,
So absorb our hearts
As to withdraw them from all that is under heaven.
Grant that we may be ready
To die for love of your love,
As you died for love of our love. Amen 

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Loving Neighbor as Self

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

When I was little, I learned in Sunday school that it was important to remember the two dimensions of the cross. A cross has an upward axis and that reminds us of our relationship with God. But the cross also has a horizontal axis, which reminds us of our relationships with each other. Both need to be in order for us to be right with God.

I learned that incredibly simple (if not simplistic) understanding of the cross maybe 40 years ago. But I’m not sure if I’m any closer at all to reflecting that kind of balance as I try to live my own life in the way of the cross.

The first great commandment: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength;” and the second, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” are at the center of what it means to walk in the way of the cross. Those two great commandments are at the center of the scripture readings today.

Some churches remind themselves of these words, sometimes referred to as “The Summary of the Law,” every Sunday at the beginning of the Holy Eucharist. Today, we hear it reverberate in the first lesson from Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that God has promised to watch over them and to love them and to keep them safe. They will pass over from slavery into freedom, from bondage into liberty. They will be free. They will live. And so, he says, give thanks to the God who saves. The Lord is one. Love him with your heart, and your soul and all your might. Moses urges people to love God with their soul, but that word he uses for “soul” is a rich one.

It means to love God with your whole self, with your life, with the creature that you are, with your whole person, with your appetite, with your mind, with your desire, and with your passion.
The Second Commandment, “to love your neighbor as yourself” is sometimes thought by Christians to have originated with Jesus. But it is older. Rabbis long before Jesus had joined the commandment of loving God, with the command of loving neighbor. It’s found in the Book of Leviticus (19:18) and elsewhere. When Jesus links the love of God with the love of neighbor, he is simply following the great prophets of Israel, continuing the witness of Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Amos.

In today’s Gospel Jesus has a conversation with a man who is called a scribe, a man who is educated in the laws of God and in their interpretation. As the conversation plays out, the scribe and Jesus agree about the commandments. They agree that the mark of faith is to “love God and love neighbor,” and for that agreement, Jesus says to the man, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

This scribe agrees with the teachings of Jesus, in his head. He can assent to the essential doctrine and can even affirm the interpretations of Jesus. And according to Our Lord, this man is “not far from the kingdom.” But it is that distance, that space between apprehending the kingdom of God and actually reaching the kingdom of God that makes all the difference.

“Almost” doesn’t count, except in a couple of things, and neither of them are Biblical.

The Gospel of Mark has a momentum to it, and this momentum is moving toward the cross. The scribe is lacking something. Like the rich man in an earlier story, the scribe here is lacking the follow-through. It’s not enough just to agree with Jesus. It’s not enough simply to be familiar with his teaching. Faithfulness is shown in one’s willingness to follow the cross—and this means the whole cross, including the love of God and the love of neighbor. And that whole issue of “loving the self.”

During the month of October, at the 9:30AM hour, we’ve been reading from a little book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman. Friedman’s Fables offers odd little stories that point out various aspects of family systems theory, which tries to help us understand how we deal with family, friends, and coworkers. Throughout these fables and the theory of family systems is the important of what psychology calls “differentiation of self,” the idea that a person needs to spend some time understanding where he or she begins and ends, in relation to other people. In other words, if I don’t have a good sense of who “John” is, I might get all caught up in trying to be who you want me to be, or who I think I ought to be, or borrowing too much of your “self,” thus creating all kinds of problems for relationships.

When Jesus talks about loving neighbor as self, or when others scriptures refer to denying self, they assume what Friedman is getting at– that as each of us is created by a loving God, we are worthy of love and respect and life.

Love of neighbor without love of self can result in a kind of mission-driven frenzy that forgets people for the sake of success. Love of self without love of neighbor ends up with a preoccupation with what’s good for me and my family, while the rest of you have to fend for yourself.

Jesus calls us to love neighbor as self, but notice the emphasis is on the neighbor. He assumes we are operating out of a love of self.

As I think about the practicalities of trying to love my neighbor as myself, in the context of Christian teaching and practice, I think it involves two aspects of love.

I’ve been thinking and praying about this over the last few weeks in different contexts, but on Thursday, I had a good example to work through my own current practice of loving my neighbor. A collection of unions representing fire fighters and other first responders held a demonstration at Gracie Mansion, just down the street.

The first part of loving neighbor as self involves accepting that my neighbor HAS a self– her own self, his own self. They are not me.

The second part of loving my neighbor as myself involves wanting the very best for my neighbor– the best in terms of material goods and the best in terms of spiritual goods. Materially, loving my neighbor affects how I spend my money. How I contribute to helping others. How I vote, as my vote affects policy, which affects other people. And how I pray, as I pray for the very best thing to come for those other people.

Outside the church walls, it’s Halloween and people are dressing up– sometimes as things that scare them, to get power over them. Other times to dress up as something they admire and wish they were more like. That second idea might be a take-away for us today. As we think about Jesus’s encouragement to love your neighbor as yourself, who would you like to emulate in doing that? Is it a saint or someone in the Bible or religious history? Is it a relative– maybe someone living, maybe someone who has died? Or is it a neighbor, a coworker, or fellow church-member? I’m not suggesting we dress up as the person we admire for Halloween, but responding to today’s Gospel and with All Saint’s Day in mind, how might we begin to live towards being that person who balances love of neighbor and love of self? How might we live more deeply into that cross shaped faith connecting us to God and to others?

May all the saints, living and dead, show us the way.

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Faithful instead of Falling Overboard

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 years ago, I read about a boat in Texas that capsized, dumping all 60 passengers into Lake Travis. Two people went to the hospital, but were eventually sent home. That kind of story might have been a tragedy, except for the fact that no one was really hurt and the reason the boat capsized. It turns out that all 60 of the passengers had crowded to one side of the boat– to try to get a better view of the nude sunbathers on the shore.

I love that story because it reminds me of what can happen when we get overly concerned about what OTHER people are doing, and lose sight of what WE should be doing.

We can sometimes get tied into a knot by worrying about what others are doing: other states (politically, or around COVID), what neighbors are doing or not doing, and even what other people of faith may be doing or not doing.

I hear the Gospel saying, “Slow down a minute, John. Fine to notice issues, people, and even other churches all around, but you’re no good to those you love, to yourself, or to me if you’re consumed by resentment, envy, anger, or hatred.” What is it in YOUR life that causes you to sin? Take care of business at home, before trying to solve all your neighbor’s problems.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel from Mark, the disciples are all in an uproar—about other disciples. It seems that there are other disciples who are casting out demons in the name of Jesus, and yet, they’re not close followers of the present group. His friends and followers, the disciples, want Jesus to criticize the others, to condemn them, and to share in the outrage.
But Jesus doesn’t go for it. Instead, he basically says that if someone is not against him, don’t worry so much about them.

We can get distracted by the force of Jesus’s words, but he’s trying to get his disciples’ attention. But I think that here, as in other conversations with his disciples, Jesus is trying to wake them up, to startle them, to shock them into listening.

Pay attention to YOUR life, Jesus says. The anger at your neighbor is killing you. Another way of putting it often suggests, “Don’t worry so much about the trash in front of your neighbor’s house, when you’ve got your own side of the street to clean up.” “Take care of your side of the street.”

Just like the disciples get worried about other disciples who are doing things a little differently, or maybe not “doing them right,” according to their way of thinking, we see a similar situation in that early community around Moses. Moses gets help from 70 elders who agree to serve as leaders among the people. But then the squabbles break out. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” a young man reports. Joshua buys into the anxiety and agrees that this is a problem. “My lord Moses, stop them!” But Moses says “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”

This problem of losing focus on one’s own doings and starting to worry about others is not confined to the times of Moses or of Jesus. We continue to do this sort of thing both in our own church, among other churches, and outside of church.

In most churches, from time to time, a person or a group begins to feel that another person or group is getting all the attention. They’re getting all the money, the volunteers, or maybe even getting more of their share of the attention of the rector. But more often than not, if the person or group that feels ignored would simply focus a little more on their own tasks, their visibility would rise, they might get a say in the budget, and their energy and excitement would attract volunteers.

As a Christian, it’s very easy for me to worry about what others are doing—the Roman Catholics, the new incarnation of Jan Hus Church, now called “The Avenue Church,” just around the corner on 1st Avenue between 90th and 91st. I can spend time envying or fretting over what other Episcopalians are doing. I get upset by Christians speaking out on the far right, but also sometimes get annoyed with those speaking on the far left. But when I’m at my most healthy, I worry less about what everybody else is doing, and I begin to focus on what we’re doing here at Holy Trinity.

Especially at this phase in our church life, we have a lot to focus on. A few of our major leaders have died over the last couple of years—leaders who led financially, but also through being the energy behind getting things done. We feel their loss. We’ve also had a number of people move away. It didn’t feel as dramatic as some organizations—with people leaving in droves at the beginning of the pandemic—but for us, it’s been a slow trickle. But when we look around and realize that the center of gravity (attention, spiritual focus, or geography) for people we love is elsewhere, it can be scary.

And so, more than ever, Holy Trinity needs to draw on its spiritual and historical DNA of being scrappy, creative, entrepreneurial, and FAITHFUL. Faithful to who we’re called to be. Faithful to what we’re called to do. Are we reaching out as we should? Are we including everyone? Are we paying attention to our neighbors? Are we giving our time, our money, our talent to God sacrificially? Are we doing what we can to help this place be a place of welcome, refuge, joy, health, and new life?

Today’s Gospel ends by encouraging the disciples to be salty, to be distinctive, to stand out, and not to be stale, or just to fit in blandly. Too much salt can (of course) make everything taste the same, can sting, and can hurt. But with careful salting, all the other flavors are enhanced and brought to new life.

As we move towards St. Francis Day and our celebrations next Sunday, it’s good to recall the words attributed to St. Francis: That we should “preach the Gospel always, and when necessary, use words.” Peaching the Gospel in our own way, in our own place, might just keep us from falling overboard in the effort to look at all the interesting things along the way!

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

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Dodging Distractions

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now the silence, now the peace,
Now the empty hands uplifted;
Now the kneeling, now the plea,
Now the Father’s arms in welcome;
Now the hearing, now the power,
Now the vessel brimmed for pouring;
Now the body, now the blood,
Now the joyful celebration;
Now the wedding, now the songs,
Now the heart forgiven, leaping;
Now the Spirit’s visitation,
Now the Son’s epiphany;
Now the Father’s blessing,
Now, now, now.
(The Hymnal, no. 333, words by Jaroslav Vajda, 1919-2008)

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

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

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

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

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The Humble Power of the Cross

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

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

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

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

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

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

September 14 is known as Holy Cross Day, and it’s a day in which the Church reflects on the cross. Often the themes of the day include the triumph of the cross, the victory of the cross, and the exaltation of the cross. The scriptures appointed celebrate Jesus Christ, who “lifted up from the earth, will draw all [all things and people, all the whole creation] to himself.”

As the church venerates the cross, it sings of the power of the cross of Christ, its power over evil and death; and its power for good and life. You get the idea: the day can often seem to be about power and might, strength and victory.

But today’s readings can sound a little different. The scriptures today help us to reflect a little about the Cross of Christ, and how that cross helps us to know God more deeply, not so much through power, but through humility.

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

And so, the practice of taking up our cross involves humility, especially as it allows for learning, for loving, and following God’s lead.

To take up our cross and follow Jesus involves learning, and we hear about this kind of humility in the first reading. Isaiah says, “The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens– wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.” In other words, God has already brought Isaiah to a place of humility—of realizing that he doesn’t know everything, certainly not everything there is to know about God, or God’s ways. And so, God teaches Isaiah.

Even more, God gives Isaiah “the tongue of those who are taught,” which is to say a tongue that thinks before it speaks, a tongue that wonders where God is in this or that, a tongue that tries to be slow in its criticism of others and quick in its encouragement.

We didn’t read from the Letter of James, the Epistle reading appointed for today, but James reminds us of how dangerous the “tongue” can be. He writes, “The tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.. . . How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue.”

What we say and how we speak is a part of taking up our cross. This might lead us to speak to people we normally would not. It might lead us to speak UP for people or (and this is another kind of humility)—of not thinking ourselves better than others. On the other hand, if we remember that “humility” is simply a matter of having a right-sized understanding of one’s self, then it’s also humility to understand that my voice is just as important as someone else’s, and perhaps God wants me or you to speak up.

The Letter of James reminds us that “taking up our cross” involves loving. Taking up our cross involves loving. Taking up one’s cross is not just an intimate, sweet, warm feeling of being close to God. It’s also a fire in the belly, an uneasiness in the heart, a refusal to call it peace until justice is done, until the neighbor is fed and housed and cared for.

Taking up our cross daily is about learning, it’s about loving, and finally, it’s about following God’s lead. Sometimes we aim to take up a cross, but it’s entirely too heavy. But if we step back for a second, perhaps it’s someone else’s cross and we’re not the right person to help with it. Perhaps it’s a cross of our own invention and our own making. We can sometimes cling to it and say, “This is my cross, I say. Stand back, I’ve got it. I will carry it in just such a way.”

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

Peter is frustrated with what appears to be Jesus’s plan with the Cross. Not only did Jesus seem to keep changing the plan, but the closer Peter looked, the more his own nightmare came true—that there was no plan. Or at least, there was no plan visible to the human eye. Peter doesn’t see, at first, that the way forward has to be a way of humility: of learning, of loving, and of following where God leads.

Among all the various cross that can be used to illustrate our faith, today, I think especially of the cross that seemed to appear among the rubble soon after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  You’ve seen the cross section of steel that looks like a cross and has been seen as such.  It’s now in the 9/11 Museum downtown.  The day it was noticed and for a few days afterwards, it worked as a symbol of hope, a symbol to unite people with one another and to offer assurance that things would get better.  Of course, it didn’t take long for that cross to be thought of as a weapon, to be used over and against others– but at least at the beginning, the 9/11 Cross represented something of what Jesus is talking about when he invites us to take up our cross and follow in the way of humility.

On Holy Cross Day, an ancient chant sings, “We venerate your Cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy Resurrection: for by virtue of the Cross, joy has come to the whole world.” By virtue of the Cross, JOY has come to the whole world—the quiet, steady joy that comes through humility. By moving with the humility of Christ’s cross, by learning, by loving, and by letting God take the lead, joy continues to come to us and to the whole world.

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

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Renewing Compassion, Recovering from Fatigue

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Celebration of the Community Eucharist.

The written version of the sermon is here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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