Faith not Fear

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

One summer during junior high, I went to a music camp.  In school, I played the tenor saxophone in band and felt like I was a quick learner with most of the music we played.  But it was a totally different thing to be at music camp, with kids from schools all over the county. I was scared to death.  Though we were probably all roughly the same age, everyone else seemed older, more sophisticated, with fancier instruments— and I just knew they were probably much better musicians that I.

That first day of camp, we checked in, found our places, and everyone began to warm up.  I put my saxophone together like always, attached the mouthpiece, got ready, took a deep breath…. and nothing happened.  I blew again, and nothing.  I was sweating bullets. What was wrong with my instrument? Embarrassed and worried, I got up and took my instrument to the director, who was busy trying to sort out the enrollment just minutes before our first rehearsal. I told him my instrument wouldn’t work. He looked at it, and looked at me, and then said, “Don’t breathe in so much before trying to play. Breath out a little. Relax, loosen your embouchure, your bite, and give it a try.” I did what he said, and guess what? A miracle! It worked. He smiled at me and as though he were reading my mind, said, “Don’t be afraid. Everyone’s nervous on the first day—even me!” 

Fear had paralyzed me. It made me choke. It shut me down.

I would like to say that I’ve never forgotten that story, but the truth is that I seldom remember it. I easily forget how powerful fear can be and how fear sneaks up and can cause panic.

Jesus tells a story in today’s Gospel 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. He knows they are afraid, but he says to them, “Look!  Believe! Let your faith in God overcome the fear.”

This story of the talents—which are not talents like abilities, but a form of money—is an old one. It is thought to have been older than Jesus in the oral tradition, and then handed down to Jesus, who tells it in his own context. 

Today, when we reflect on a biblical story that speaks of slaves and masters, we bristle, especially as we wrestle with the legacy of slavery in our own country. And just to be clear and state the obvious, in our reading of scripture, we in no way mean to normalize the practice of slavery, but rather, we notice the movement of history, confess our troubled past, 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.

At the heart of this Gospel is fear. Fear is 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. It freezes him, prevents growth, and separates him from action, moving him into isolation.

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.

Someone has pointed out that the word, “FEAR” can be an acronym, with each letter representing a word.  Especially when it seems to control us, F-E-A-R can indeed be like “false evidence appearing real.”

The Gospel today is about investing—about investing money, in some ways.  But it’s also (and even more, probably) about investing one’s energy, one’s ability, one’s faith, one’s love, and one’s hope.

In Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, he reminds the church that we are people of light, not of darkness. Fears can overshadow things to the extent that it can feel like it’s always going to be night, and that’s where various escape mechanisms can kick in. Paul names sleep and drunkenness, but we could add our own, probably—all the various ways we deal with fear. 

Most of us are carrying around a lot of fear.  We’re afraid of this Covid-19 coronavirus— both of getting sick, but also afraid of the way its attacking our jobs, our economy, our culture, and our families.  We’re afraid of the divides affecting our country—deep differences among people that seem irreconcilable and hopeless.

But Paul writes to the Thessalonians and to us, understanding that we have fears, but encouraging us not to let them get the best of us.  Paul says it just won’t work to sleepwalk or live in a daze.  It won’t work to ignore the present and just hope for some day in the future when Jesus returns and all is well.  Instead, Paul says, arm yourself as if for battle: “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”  It’s a fight— not with people, but against darkness and despair, a fight against fear.  Paul continues, “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”

Even in the midst of fear, we, at Holy Trinity, are talking about stewardship, about how God (and this parish) needs every one of us.  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 in two weeks, 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. And so we pray to God, “Give us love, give us faith, give us hope.”

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, that shows others the power of faith over fear.  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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Being Prepared

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

Though Father Ousley preached this Sunday, Father Beddingfield’s thoughts are here:

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 an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, for a revival of our city… and so many other things.

A part of our waiting and preparing in faith might involve 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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Cheered on by the Saints

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

Here at Holy Trinity, I’ve gotten used to having “backup” on All Saints’ Sunday. The first Sunday of November, as most recall, is also the day of the New York City Marathon. Last year, almost 54,000 people finished the race and from early Sunday morning, streets are closed, bars and restaurants bring tables and sound system outside, and streets and sidewalks are turned into a party of welcome and encouragement. You can feel the energy. You can hear the excitement.

I call it “backup” for All Saints’ Day because it works out that we are in church hearing the scriptures about those who have believe and died and risen again, and how they cheer for us even now, our words and music are punctuated by the cheering of the real crowds on 1st Avenue.

Of course, due to Covid-19, this year’s marathon is cancelled in its massive, collective form. But people are still running. As long as someone has entered the race, registers their run with a GPS-equipped app completes the 26.2-mile race anytime between October 17 and November 1, that person has run the NYC Marathon. 

We miss the actual marathon with its noise and energy and excitement, but even this year, we have “backup” for All Saints’ Day.  And in some ways, this year might be the better analogy. For most of us—other than through scripture and music and prayer—we don’t usually hear the cheering of the saints.  We don’t feel their energy or their strength and we’re just not always sure that they’re out there, much less in here.

But just as the NYC marathon is happening – we will hear people’s stories about it, we’ll hear them tell of their experience, we’ll pray for them, and we’ll trust them—in a similar way, the Saints surround us, whether we hear them, see them, or even sense them.

All Saints Day is a good time to remember that in the New Testament, the word “saint” is used somewhat loosely. In some places, all the faithful are referred to as saints—just the especially good ones. Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In Corinth, Paul suggests that the squabbling Christians not take their problems to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” that is, the local gathering of Christians. In Revelation, John shows us various pictures of the saints in light, ordinary believers—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.

In Revelation, John the Divine offers his vision of what heaven must look like when people have fully grown into their sainthood.

. . . [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!”

Revelation shows us the future, but it also helps us understand the past. Those everyday saints who struggled to be faithful in this world, who prayed to God and prayed for each other have been raised to new life into heaven. There they do what they did in this life—they show forth God’s love, they sing God’s praises, and they pray. They pray for one another and they pray for us. 

The saints’ prayers for us help us to hear Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel not as impossible demands, but as promises that are revealed in our lives and the lives of … well, all the saints.

The Sermon on the Mount, with its Beatitudes, that lovely listing of “blessed be’s,” sets the Christian standard so high that it can feel unattainable. But we have help. We have help in those who have gone before us who wrestled with these words of Jesus.

Some didn’t quite meet the mark. Others came to embody the beatitudes. They became so closely identified with the blessings, that they themselves became blessings in the lives of others.

The Beatitudes point us in the direction of holiness. We’re (very few of us) there yet, but we’re on the way. The saints remind us to stay on track, and they help to show us the way.

As the great children’s hymn reminds us

They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still.
The world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.

You can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea,
in church, or in trains or in shops, or at tea,
for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

As we remember All Saints, the famous ones and the ones we have known and loved, may they inspire us. When we are tired, may they strengthen us. When we are lazy, may they shame us. When we are alone, may they surround us. And may they fill our lives with increasing love until the day that we join them before God in everlasting praise.

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

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Loving Our Neighbor (even if it’s from across the street)

Hear a short recap of the Sunday service:

Watch the 11 AM Celebration of the Holy Eucharist

Watch the 6 PM Community Eucharist

Read a version of the sermon here:

I had a parishioner in a previous church who could often be extremely funny with her observations, but at the same time, she could be deeply theological.  More than once, when someone inside the church or outside the church was being difficult, Nancye would say, “I know I’m supposed to love my neighbor…. But sometimes I’ve just got to do it from across the street.”

When we hear scriptures like those we just heard, from Leviticus, “Be holy, for God is holy.” And then Jesus’s repetition of the other Leviticus scripture, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself,” we are probably tempted to just put such words over to the side:  I’d get to those one day, when I’m more accomplished at prayer.  I’ll be able to deal with that kind of faithfulness when there’s less to worry about. 

But Jesus wasn’t talking to the advanced religious of his day or ours:  and my parishioner Nancy had it more right than she might have imagined. Jesus is saying Love God and love your neighbor as yourself, but “across the street” works just fine, and sometimes works even better.

Many of you probably know that the Greek New Testament uses at least four different words for what we call in English, simply, “Love.”  There is the unabashed erosof lovers, the storge love of family members, the sympathetic philiaof friends, and agapegiving itself away freely in ways that are sometimes harder to translate—into English or into action.  (the King James version translates agape love as charity).

The writer and theologian Frederick Buechner clarifies Jesus’s use of the word, “love.”  He writes,

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as well produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends. 

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn’t say, “There, there. Everything’s going to be all right.” He said, “You brood of vipers! how can you speak good when you are evil!” (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.  

Frederick Buechner, – Originally published in Wishful Thinking

Jesus is saying here in shorthand what Leviticus is spelling out.  We’re not called to be holy like God meditating somewhere in a temple.  Holiness looks like certain things, and it looks like very practical, mundane things.

Judging rightly and fairly
Don’t show favoritism to people with money or importance
Don’t slander others, spreading gossip
Don’t profit by the blood of others
Don’t hate in your heart anyone of your kin or community
Don’t take vengeance or bear a grudge,
But Do reprove a neighbor and love your neighbor as yourself.

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.

Connection with God is one thing, and we work on that as best we can. We pray, we attend worship, we learn and try to grow spiritually. 

But we’re also called to connect with others, to love our neighbors as ourselves. Though there are countless ways that we might do this, and surely, you have your favorites, I think of three spiritual practices can help:

1.   Resist slander.  So often when I’m with one other person, it seems like the quickest way to deepen our relationship is to agree about the deficiencies or defects of a third person who is not present.  With social media, it’s even easier to forward or “like” some slanderous comment without giving much thought to its veracity.  This is slander. This is gossip.  And Jesus invites us to resist it, no matter how tempting.

2.   Imagine you neighbor’s pain.  I don’t mean to imagine your neighbor undergoing something painful and derive pleasure from that!—No, instead, I mean, to think for a moment about the neighbor’s challenges, heartaches, worries, and pains.   This is not meant to excuse the conduct of a problematic neighbor, but it moves us in compassion towards “loving” our neighbor as ourselves.

3.  Pray for the wellbeing of the other person.  Again, we don’t have to “feel” anything in particular to simply pray that God might bless our neighbor with whatever good God might intend. 

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who trespass against us.”  Whether it’s “trespasses and trespassers,” “debt and debtors,” or just plain “sins and those who sin against us,” the prayer that Jesus taught reminds us that we’re connected.

Jesus asks us to take up our cross daily.  I don’t think this is usually as dramatic as we might imagine. Rather, it’s like our being the active part of the cross that not only connects to God but stretches outward, reaching out to love our neighbor—even if it’s through a computer screen, a telephone, or across the street.

Especially in these challenging days of living through a pandemic, of navigating elections and their aftermath, and of simply trying to get through another week, may Christ help us to follow in the way of the cross, maintaining our relationship with God but also building our love of neighbor.

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

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Dancing with Protest and Promise

Dancing
A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 7,2020. The scripture readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a and Matthew 28:16-20.

You can watch the sermon HERE.

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about dancing. Not about going dancing or about taking some kind of online class. The dance I have in mind is slower. The moves are both simpler and more complicated. And it’s a dance that has already begun around us, and will likely continue for a long time.

I’m thinking of several dances at once, really, but the underlying one is the dance of God, the motion and movement of the Holy Trinity at work in our world to bring love, to make justice, to change hearts, and to create a new world.

Our first reading was from Genesis, as we heard part of the tale of creation. I imagine God’s making the world almost as a kind of dance of hands. God’s long, beautiful arms call forth, calm the chaos, push forms into place, stir up life, and bless it all.

The Gospel can be imagined as a kind of ballet in which Jesus is surrounded by his followers for final instructions. He’s lifted up and from that place he gives direction—”go out,” he says. “Wash, water, and renew with baptism. And go out knowing that the steps and turns and jumps and rolls that you’ll do, I have done before, and my spirit, my Christly choreography will animate you to the end of days.”

As I’ve watched so many protests and demonstrations this week, and been in several, I’ve noticed a dancing quality to them. The Vigil at Carl Schurz Park is quiet and slow. People sit down in silence, but then for 8 minutes and 46 seconds (the length of time that the Minneapolis policeman held his knee on the neck of George Floyd) people raise an arm. Arms are raised in affirmation that Black Lives Matter, that racism must be faced and dealt with in our laws, our institutions, our families, and ourselves; and (I think) as a kind of dance-like affirmation of our bodies. We are here. We can move and be part of a movement for change.

Another strain of the dance has taken place as thousands go over bridges and move from place to place with strength and purpose. At various times, usually with no words, but with signals picked up from body to body, people kneel, they take a knee—begun by football quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously began to kneel during the national anthem to call attention to racism in the US.

In Newark, a demonstration ended with a street dance. Everyone began doing the “cupid shuffle,” and the police joined in. In Puerto Rico, demonstrators break into a bomba, and in New Zealand, the Haka celebrates Maori pride and culture.

Last Sunday, as protests were heating up in Santa Monica, California, a man named Jo’Artis Ratti walked right up to the police, announced he was there for peace, and started dancing. Ratti is one of the originators of the style of dance knowns as krump, an aggressive dance that began as an expression of black and brown rage in the face of Rodney King, police and gang violence, poverty, and drugs. As Ratti explained in a video by the Washington Post, “How else do we cry to the grotesque….I can’t just whimper over something like this…”

One of the most moving examples of protest dance in our time came out of Chile in the late 1970s and 80s. After a United States-backed coup in 1973, which overthrew the democratically-elected government, General Pinochet began his brutal regime, exiling, arresting, or killing all opposition. More than 3,000 people, mostly men, were simply “disappeared” or made to vanish by government forces. The women of Chile took the cueca, named the national dance by the Pinochet dictatorship in 1979, and refashioned it as the cueca sola, danced alone by one woman, in memory, in protest of the husband, father, or son who had been taken from her.

The musician Sting, wrote a song about this, calling it “Cueca Solo, They dance alone.”

Dancing with the missing
They’re dancing with the dead
They dance with the invisible ones
Their anguish is unsaid
They’re dancing with their fathers
They’re dancing with their sons
Dancing with their husbands
They dance alone
They dance alone

But while they seemed to be dancing alone, they were dancing alone, together, and their dancing inspired a movement of women who began dancing louder and louder from Chile to Argentina to El Salvador, through Latin America and the world.

And so, we dance. Sometimes alone, sometimes together. There are many in our country who say, “but we’re tired of doing the same old dance, and nothing has changed, or very little has changed.” Why should we go on?

Because God dances with us.

Today is Trinity Sunday and it’s an especially good time for us to remember one image that has been used to describe the movement of the Holy Trinity. The early church spoke of God’s indwelling, with God’s mutual outpouring and movement into. The Trinity was understood as a dynamic: the God the Creator always pouring love and light and energy into the Christ, Christ always pouring himself into the Spirit, and the Spirit moving back into and around the Creator/Parent and Christ/Child. The word that theologians used to describe this continual activity of God is very close to the Greek work for dance, and so it became a popular way of speaking of the Trinity as a kind of dance of love.

The Brazilian theologian, Leonardo Boff argues for in increased focus on what he calls the “social trinity,” another way of describing our dancing God. Boff writes,

What does it mean to say God is in communion and therefore Trinity? . . . . It means one is in the presence of the other, different from the other but open in a radical mutuality. For there to be true communion there must be direct and immediate relationships: eye to eye, face to face, heart-to-heart. The result of mutual surrender and reciprocal community. Community results from personal relationships in which each is accepted as he or she is, each opens to the other and gives the best of himself or herself [Holy Trinity, Perfect Community, p. 3].

We may be bad dances. We may be shy. If we’re white and privileged, the old joke that we have no rhythm is probably a good one to keep in mind for humility’s sake, so we can listen and learn how to move, where the dance is leading, how God’s Holy Trinity is working through people and movements and systems for new life. No matter how awkward we might be, God extends a hand and invites us to join the dance, this eternal trinity of love and movement and new life, and to include more and more people in the dance.

That powerful song by Sting, offers hope that is nothing short of biblical. It sings:

One day we’ll dance on their graves [the graves of the oppressors]
One day we’ll sing our freedom
One day we’ll laugh in our joy
And we’ll dance.

May God help us to grow in humble strength and strong humility, that we might move in step with the Holy Trinity.

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Preaching Faith in a Fearful World

francis_assisi_sermon_birdsAn article for the May 3, 2020 edition of News from 316, the weekly notice from Holy Trinity.

“Fear not,” we read in scripture. Though it varies with the translation of the Bible, God or a messenger of God says to someone “fear not,” between 300 and 400 times! That’s a lot of encouragement coming from God, and yet, it would not have been necessary, had people not been afraid.  Throughout history, faithful people have been afraid of what was going on around them and what might happen next.  Even though popular religious culture often says confidently, “the opposite of fear is faith,” most of us know the reality that sometimes we can be full of both: lots of faith and lots of fear.

As the days go by, I’m slightly less afraid for my health and for the health of others, but my list of fears is long and real. I’m afraid of what will happen to our neighborhood and city in the coming months. I’m afraid for all the parishioners whose jobs or livelihoods are gone or threatened.  I’m afraid some of our parishioners who have moved away or developed new habits may not return. I’m afraid the loss of income through community groups and filming and the other odd things that help keep this old, expensive building running will dry up. On and on, I can go with my fears.

At the same time, I’ve never felt closer to the Risen Christ. I’m full of faith. We are followers of Jesus, who breathed life into the people he encountered while he was on the earth, and then rose from the dead in a way that breathes new life into us here and hereafter.  We have stories and prayers and songs that affirm our faith, and I’m glad that we can tell them through social media.  Yes, it’s devastating to face an empty church every Sunday, but whether there are people physically in our building or not does not change the life-giving story of our faith—which can be preached to a crowd, to a couple of people, or like St. Francis did—to creation itself!

Though he probably did not say it quite in this way, St. Francis is often credited with having said, “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Especially in these days of staying at home, social distancing, and uncertainty, it’s important to remember that we are ALL entrusted with preaching the “Gospel” (meaning, the Good News about Jesus). The way and life of Jesus Christ leads us through fear, with faith, no matter what.

Each of us lives out a sermon. Whatever we do—whether praying for others, reaching out through letters, emails, or calls, or (for those who are able to do so safely) running errands and checking on others, our sermons are shared.  May Christ continue to fill us with faith, even when we’re afraid, so that all our sermons might be heard in a frightened world.

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The Strong Peace of Christ

Jesus_BasilicaA sermon offered at Easter Day Evensong, April 12, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 114, Isaiah 51:9-11, and John 20:19-23.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Many of you know the Washington National Cathedral, the Episcopal Cathedral for the Diocese of Washington. It’s a beautiful building. But there’s also another remarkable church building in Washington. Though it’s not the Roman Catholic cathedral, it is a basilica: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It’s the largest Roman Catholic religious building in the country, and in addition to having a great gift shop and bookstore), it has breath-taking mosaics. The one that towers over the main altar in the central apse is called “Christ in Majesty.” Some have referred to it as “scary Jesus,” or “Superhero Jesus,” but I like it.

I like that image of Jesus because it is so counter to the fragile, gentle, youthful Jesuses so often shown to us. You know the type: Jesus with a lamb on his shoulder, the old-fashioned Jesus who’s almost blond and blue-eyed; or the newer icons of Jesus that show him as a kind of androgynous person of color, an image of the cosmic good. The kind of Jesus who is always meek and mild, who wouldn’t hurt a flea, doesn’t have much to say to a world that needs his power to stir things us, to turn things upside down, and to bring about a new creation.

Jesus IS all about peace, but his is a strong, forceful, full peace. When Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room, he says, “Peace be with you.” But it’s no wimpy peace. It’s the power of life over death.

Today’s Gospel anticipates next Sunday’s Gospel, but this doubling portion of peace is not a bad thing. The power of Christ’s peace is worth our time (I think) because so often, in our day the peace of Christ is portrayed as a weak thing, a watered-down gentleness, a depressed quiescence or some vaguely religious feeling of calm. Too often we pass the peace with air-kisses and limp handshakes, as though we might catch something.

But when Jesus bursts into the locked room, a room locked down by fear as much as by bolted doors, Jesus offers the full power of his peace. It is a peace that has burst forth from the grave, a peace that has been to hell and back, a peace that has laughed in the face of death.

We have seen evidence of this peace already through the season of Lent.

When Jesus was tempted in the desert, it was his peace that enabled him to face down the devil, to keep centered, to remain connected to God, to survive—and eventually to be fed by angels.

It is the peace of Christ that eases us through the narrow door. The peace of Christ sustains us in the face of calamity, helps us to repent when we have done wrong, and reminds us that like that poor, little fig tree in Luke—we are given a second chance.

Sometimes it is the peace of Christ that slaps us in the face and turns us around, and like the prodigal, we are led back into the loving embrace of God, God the parent-beyond-allparents.
The Jesus of the Resurrection is the one who went into the hell of the tomb, wrestled with the devil and death itself, and came out again, alive and renewed and powerful enough to carry us into eternal life, too. This is no wimpy Jesus. It is a peace that opens our eyes and causes our hearts to burn within us.

The peace of Christ makes the powerful nervous; and in response, builders reject the best stone, leaders reject the voice of wisdom, and rulers don’t know a true king when they see one coming, even if he is riding on a donkey.

But this peace of Christ—this strong, fierce, loving, vital peace rises up from the deepest heart of God and from the beginning of beginnings. Following Isaiah’s imagery (from the first reading this afternoon) we can say that it was God’s peace that stirred up and sang out in that first Passover, God’s peace that dried up the sea and made a way for salvation. It was God’s peace that wreaked havoc on the enemy and moved the chosen toward freedom.

The peace of Christ is no neutral thing. It is not benign or harmless. It is like fire, like the fire of Pentecost. Because it has to do with truth, it can kill. But it can also raise from the dead, enliven to strength beyond imagination, and breathe into us all life everlasting.

In our day there is sometimes the encouragement “to work” for peace or to “make peace” as though peace were something that you and I might accomplish, ourselves.

But I understand the peace of God to be more unruly, more unpredictable and less within my own control. If left to ourselves, what first appears as peace, before too long is usually uncovered to be one person’s agenda, the mess of one’s manipulation of the other. Egos are exposed and the peace is broken. But the peace of God is different.

Our former presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori used to speak about God’s shalom. In one sermon she explained some of what she means by this shalom:

[Shalom, she said] is “that rich and multihued vision of a world where no one goes hungry because everyone is invited to a seat at the groaning board, it’s a vision of a world where no one is sick or in prison because all sorts of disease have been healed, … a vision of a world where every human being has the capacity to use every good gift that God has given… where no one enjoys abundance at the expense of another… where all enjoy Sabbath rest in the conscious presence of God. Shalom [offers] … that vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and the small child playing over the den of the adder, where the specter of death no longer holds sway.”

This is no wimpy peace. This is no peace that we might “make.” It is not achieved by us, with or without armies, through government or structures of any kind. Rather, it is a peace that comes from God and that becomes possible when God rises within us.

This Easter, may we receive the peace of Christ– this strong, strange and surprising peace. May we know its power and its love, and may it rise so fully within us that we can offer the peace of Christ to a fearful and waiting world.

Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed, alleluia!

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Sacred Tears

mary-magdalene-noli-giottoA sermon offered on Easter Day, April 12, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24Acts 10:34-43 and John 20:1-18

Watch the sermon HERE.

I’ve always envied the sort of person who cries easily. You know the type—when they’re sad, they cry. When they’re frustrated, sometimes they cry. When they’re angry—the tears flow freely.

I’m not like that. My tears are a little unpredictable. I’m told it’s because I keep a lot of things inside, and so emotions like sadness and frustration and anger—surface when they can’t stay hidden any longer. For example, when a beloved parishioner dies, I can often show up in all the appropriate ways, visit with the family and friends, lead a funeral, and not shed a tear. But then, a day or two later, watching an insurance commercial on television, I’ll dissolve in tears. It’s not the actors on tv who getting to me, but for whatever reason, I sometimes have a delayed reaction when it comes to tears.

I’ve been like that around the Covid-19 coronavirus. I read about the virus making people sick in China and about huge numbers of people dying. And they it began to move through Europe. I paid close attention and prayed, but I don’t think I cried. As people in our area began getting sick, and then acquaintances and friends of friends began dying, I’ve prayed harder, and thought deeply. But then, on about the 3rd or 4th night of the 7pm NYC “thank you for healthcare workers,” it hit me. I was walking the dog, and had forgotten about the time, and all of a sudden, I was swept up in the cheers, and the applause and the horns. And my own tears came full force.

Maybe we all carry certain societal and cultural baggage about crying in public, about “keeping it together,” and about keeping a stiff upper lip. But tears are a part of life. They’re with us at the very beginning; they’re with us at the very end. Tears are in our mothers’ eyes when we’re born and tears are in the eyes of those who love us, when we die.

And this morning, we have tears in our Easter Story. They are the tears of Mary Magdalene. And perhaps there are even a few tears of our own.

Mary comes to the tomb early on Easter morning and she finds the great stone over the entrance has been moved away. She runs and tells Simon Peter and John. They then look into the tomb and find the linen cloths, but see no body. The disciples leave the tomb and go back their homes.

But Mary stays outside the tomb, weeping. She weeps as she looks into the tomb, but notice that it’s only by looking through her tears, that she begins to see. First, she sees what looks like two angels. “Why are you weeping,” they ask. She turns around and sees who she thinks is the gardener, but it’s Jesus. He asks her the same question and again, through her tears, she recognizes him.

Tears can express loss, regret, sorrow, and especially sorrow for sins. Tears show that we’re connected, we’re aware, and we—to some extent, at least—acknowledge we are a part of things, when they go rightly, and when they go wrongly.

St. John Climacus, was a 7th century monk who wrote about tears. He said, “God in His love for [us] gave us tears. . . If God in His mercy had not granted to [us] this second baptism, then few indeed would be saved. . . When our soul departs from this life, we shall not be accused because we have not worked miracles . . . but we shall all certainly have to account to God because we have not wept unceasingly for our sins.”

Because we have not wept….

John calls tears a “second baptism.” On this Sunday when the Church often baptizes and makes new Christians, when we often reaffirms baptismal vows, it’s helpful to hear (this year) that image of tears as a kind of second baptism. As such, tears are a help to our spiritual life. They are a help to our prayers.

When the coronavirus continues to ravage the world, to weaken the already weak, and to bring down many of the strong, tears are in order. When so many people are losing jobs and workplaces, tears are called for. When we see the freezer trucks outside hospitals, the makeshift medical centers in a park and a tennis center, and read of new burials on Hart Island, tears are perhaps the only faithful response.

But tears can lead the way of prayer. Mary Magdalene’s tears are a crucial detail, I think. Because it is only through her tears, that Mary begins to see Jesus. And through her tears she begins to see the possibilities for new life.

The tears are necessary. They are cathartic, they are helpful. Tears testify that something powerful is happening, sometimes something beautiful, sometimes something horrible, but it is some- thing. It exists. It has meaning and purpose and we are changed because of it.

Mary stands at the tomb weeping—for how long, we don’t know. Perhaps, like Psalm 30, her “Weeping had spent the night….” She probably knew the psalm (42) that speaks of tears being one’s only food, day and night. She might have known Psalm 56 that affirms, “You have noted my lamentation; put my tears into your bottle,” that God notices tears.
And yet, Mary’s tears move her. They take her to a new place. Her weeping makes a way as she realizes that Jesus is alive and that he has risen.

Mary’s tears remind us that Easter is not just about lilies, and bunnies, and butterflies. But before the butterfly, there’s a caterpillar. What eventually becomes the butterfly, has to crawl before it can fly. And in the cocoon, there’s a messy, death-like process. The caterpillar almost has to completely decompose before it can begin to develop into a butterfly. But new life comes.

Before a new project can be started, an old one has to die in some way. Before a new habit or discipline can begin, an old one usually has to die out. Before following a new dream, an old one has to recede. Good Friday’s FINISH makes possible a new chapter in our spiritual, or social, or emotional life, the old has to be let go.

In the Revelation to John, God promises a day when, God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4).

Let us give thanks that Christ’s death and resurrection means for us that no matter how hard things may seem (or how blessed), how far away God (or how close), no matter how many tears—God makes a way into new life, risen with Christ.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

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Good Friday: Never Alone

Franciscan CrucifixA sermon offered at Evensong on Good Friday, April 10, 2020. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Psalm 22Isaiah 52:13-53:12, and John 18:1-19:4.

Watch the sermon HERE.

Good Friday can feel like a lonely day: the spare, quiet church, the prayers of penitence, psalms of lament, and mournful music. It all can contribute to a sense of aloneness, of individuality, and isolation. The focus of the day is Jesus dying on the cross.

But as most of you know, what happens on the cross is described somewhat differently, depending on which Gospel one reads.

In Matthew’s Gospel, which we heard on Palm Sunday, Jesus cries out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) Jesus is mostly alone, surrounded by strangers and criminals.

In a similar way, Mark’s Gospel also includes this cry of abandonment—this cry of frustration, of loneliness, of fear, even.  Last Sunday, we admitted that many of us sometimes feel the loss of Mark and Matthew and wonder about God’s presence.

But here is where a little bit of biblical literacy can be a helpful thing.  Just as each Gospel has a particular point of view, it’s important to learn what we can from each one and especially when we identify strongly with one perspective, it can be helpful to notice another point of view.

Maybe it’s for this reason that while the appointed Gospel for Palm Sunday changes each year, Good Friday every year draws from John.  And in John’s Gospel, no sense of abandonment. Jesus is not alone. God is there. Fully, richly, completely.

The theologian Jürgen Moltmann explains it this way:

To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, [but] the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son. The Fatherlessness of the Son is matched by the Sonlessness of the Father…. (The Crucified God, p. 243).

And so, in John’s Gospel, Jesus dies on the cross, but he is not alone. There is the company of the Father, and the presence of the Spirit. But this community extends into our world, there at the foot of the cross, where Mary the Mother of Jesus, the Mother of God stands watching (and weeping.)

Fridays during Lent (while we still could), we walked and prayed the Stations of the Cross, and we sang of the Virgin Mary’s presence.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is there, along with her sister. Other Mary’s are there: the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene. The Beloved Disciple is there.  Even though the Beloved is not named, tradition points to John, and if, in fact the Beloved Disciple is the author of this Gospel, his anonymity might be explained by humility.

From the cross, Jesus speaks to Mary and the Beloved Disciple. “Woman, here is your son.” And then to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” As I wrote in my reflection on the Twelfth Station, a Canadian priest suggest that by giving Mary to the disciple and the disciple to Mary, Jesus is forming a bond, a new relationship, between the CHURCH and the TEACHING OF THE APOSTLES (which is to say, the tradition of the church that we have inherited and continue to live out).

The Canadian priest, Tim Perry writes, “On the one hand, all people who would receive the salvation Jesus brings (symbolized by the mother of Jesus) must come under the care of those who knew Jesus best, the apostles (symbolized by the Beloved Disciple)…. [But on the other hand]”… the apostles’ teachings are cared for, preserved, protected, and indeed understood nowhere other than the Church.” (Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary, p. 91-92).  Both need each other.

In other words, Mary can represent the Church at its best—showing up, serving, doing, praying, loving, abiding in the love and life of Jesus. John, the Beloved Disciple, represents the apostolic tradition in which we all play a role—learning, teaching, meditating on the way of Christ, deepening our lives and the life of the Church through spiritual disciplines. Mary and John need each other.

Perry suggest that reading Mary as symbolic of the Church and the Beloved Disciple as symbolic of the apostles can serve both as a warning and a promise for us.

As a warning, it reminds us that it’s not all about me. It’s not about “me and Jesus.” As some of us find in this current place of isolation, the scariest neighborhood to be in is up in our own head.  And the Church risks losing its soul when it drifts too far from the teaching and wisdom of the apostles. Both happen in our day just as much as they have happened in history.

But there is also great promise in this relationship of Mary with the Beloved. The cross does not leave us alone. We are never forsaken.  We have been grafted into the church through baptism and we have been entrusted into the care of the apostles. When we hear the scriptures, when we receive the sacraments, when we walk and talk together in faith, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ.

At the Fourteenth Station of the Cross, as Jesus is laid in the tomb, we affirm, “You will not abandon me to the grave: Nor let your Holy One see corruption.” And then we sing, with Mother Mary and the Beloved Disciple, and all the Company of Heaven,

Jesus, may thy Cross defend me,
And thy saving death befriend me,
Cherished by thy deathless grace.

When to dust my dust returneth,
Grant a soul that to thee yearneth
In thy Paradise a place. Amen. (Stabat Mater, Jacopone da Todi, 13th c.)

The love and presence of the Holy Trinity means that no matter how we might feel, no matter what the presenting evidence might suggest, WE ARE NEVER ALONE.  With God’s abiding and loving presence, may we be kept safe until we, too, are brought to new life in the Resurrection.

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

 

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Maundy Thursday: Making our Communion

jesus-washing-peter-s-feet-1876A sermon offered at Evening Prayer on Maundy Thursday. Because our church is closed to the public during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, our worship services have been adjusted, streamed live, and recorded. The scriptures are Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1, 10-17, and John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Watch the sermon HERE.

Usually, there are two great themes to Maundy Thursday. The first has to do with service.  As the name of the day comes from the Latin, Mandatum, meaning command.  It refers to Jesus’s words to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Some of you have heard me rant in the past about the kind of liturgy that involves only a priest or bishop washing the feet of twelve people, to represent the twelve disciples.  Notice Jesus’s words:  he doesn’t say, get some religious leaders to imitate me so that everyone can sit back and admire the humility of the leader.  Jesus says, “you should love one another, just as I have loved you.” It’s for that reason that when we have a regular Maundy Thursday service, we invite people to wash one another’s feet and for many, it’s one of the most moving experiences of the year. Others, no doubt, are grateful that this year, we’re not able to offer that service with the option of foot-washing.

The second theme of Maundy Thursday has to do with Institution of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.  And this year, even though we don’t celebrate the Eucharist tonight, in some ways, this year, we may be closer to Jesus and his disciples than ever.

Think about the context for the Last Supper. The disciples are away from home, away from families, some of them away from spouses and other loved ones.  Work has been disrupted for them—perhaps through their own choosing, as they left what they were doing and followed Jesus, but their feelings of dislocation and confusion must have been somewhat similar to what many are feeling today. Like today, for the disciples, there was fear in the room—they had heard rumors of a pending arrest of Jesus, and they must have wondered what might happen to them. Is God still in charge of this story?

Because our worship service tonight includes neither the washing of feet or the sharing of the Holy Eucharist, perhaps the Spirit is encouraging us to notice the heart of what Jesus says.  Love one another, just as I have loved you.

Some traditional Christians will check in with each other after major religious days.  Sometimes they ask, “Did you make your Communion?”, meaning, did you go to church, did you receive the Body of Christ?

But especially this year, perhaps we can really think about that phrase.  “Making our Communion” might mean giving someone a telephone call, or sending an email. The healthy and able-bodied might “make communion” with God and another human being by running an errand—shopping for someone, or helping with a minor repair, or taking someone through a slow, process of how to work a smart phone or computer program.

The mandatum, that New Commandment, that Jesus gives his disciples and us goes way beyond washing someone else’s feet or receiving the Holy Eucharist—it means that we actually notice one another, that we help one another, that we look out for one another, that we pray for one another.

Though we’re all missing people and church services and routines … may the Holy Spirit use this time to deepen us in our love of Christ and one another and to show us new ways of carrying out Jesus’s commandment to love one another.

 

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