God’s Welcome

prodigalA sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 31, 2019.  The scripture readings are Joshua 5:9-12Psalm 322 Corinthians 5:16-21, and 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

One of the highlights of ordained ministry happened for me in summer 2012.  A couple had been together for ten years and had served as foster parents for several children.  They had hoped to adopt, but each time the process got close, something happened.  Finally, the couple served as foster parents for two children and began the process to adopt them. The birth mother was supportive and encouraging, but the couple was surprised when the social worker called to announce that the little boy and girl also had a smaller sister, and if the couple would like to adopt here, as well, it might be possible. After a year or two of process, paperwork, meetings, and reviews, on a hot Thursday in July, a bunch of us met in family court in downtown Washington.  As the judge signed the documents and made the adoption official, we all cheered. The little girls aged 2 and 3, and their big brother, age 6, now had a new family and a whole new family support network.  At that point, everyone left the court (included the judge) and we walked to a nearby restaurant, where we were expected.  After a few celebratory drinks and after a few more people arrived, I officiated at the marriage of the couple (they happened to both be men, and marriage had just become legal recently), and then once they were married, we used the Book of Common Prayer’s form for the Thanksgiving of the Adoption of Children.

I remember talking with the couple for years before they were finally able to adopt.  I remember how deeply they felt called to be parents and how almost every decision they made was done with an eye towards a future family.  I’ve known other people who have had similar hopes, expectations, and dreams of having children—whether biologically or through adoption. In each family, I look at the children and I think of how lucky they are to be so deeply loved.  How blessed they are.  And I wonder if they have any idea of just how much and for how long they’ve been loved?

Do WE have any idea of how much WE are loved and wanted and desired and hoped for and planned for and dreamed about—by God? THIS is what today’s Gospel story is about—it’s about God’s searching, seeking love; love that disregards custom or protocol or cultural expectation—love that disrupts and makes a new world, love that moves towards each one of us.

The story of the prodigal is straightforward enough and whenever we hear it read, we probably hear a bit of ourselves in one of the characters or another.

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

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

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

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

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

The way Jesus tells the story, we can be tempted to stay within the story itself.  And yet, for us, living in the 21stcentury, the context is a little different. God in Jesus has given himself for us and in the outpouring of God’s love for humanity that begins on the cross, wave after wave of God’s love comes to us.  We simply have to turn and receive the love God wants to give us.

Perhaps we have never acted out as explicitly and dramatically like the younger child in the Gospel.  Perhaps we have never quite stewed, steamed, or harbored resentments like the elder brother, but we have each surely done our part to cause separation– from God, from one another, and from our deepest and truest selves.  We have each of us sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. But God is always and forever seeking us, loving us from afar, hoping and praying for us to return.

Austin Farrer was a chaplain and theologian in the early 20thcentury and he writes in one place about the forgiveness of God.

“God forgives me with the compassion of his eyes, but my back is turned to him. I have been told that he forgives me, but I will not turn and have the forgiveness, not though I feel the eyes on my back. God forgives me, for he takes my head between his hands and turns my face to his to make me smile at him. And though I struggle and hurt those hands—for they are human, though divine, human and scarred with nails – though I hurt them, they do not  let go until he has smiled me into smiling; and that is the forgiveness of God.” (Austin Farrer, in Said or Sung. London, Faith Press. 1960.)

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians about a new world order, and that’s what it feels like when we turn to God in humility and honesty, and receive God’s love.

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! . . . . in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.

How do we know and feel the depth of God’s love for us?  In this life, we may find it difficult to believe the Good News, the depth of God’s love for us.  But in faith and in the community of the Church, we listen, we receive, we grow in faith.

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Turning and Returning

repentanceA sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019.  The sermon was offered at St. Stephen’s Church, Rochester Row, London (the parish linked with The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC).  The scripture readings followed the appointed readings for the Church of England, Isaiah 55.1-9, Psalm 63:1-9, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, and Luke 13:1-9 (below).

Listen to the sermon HERE
. (There is no edited, written version of the sermon to be posted this week.)

Luke 13:1-9, New Revised Standard Version

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.’

Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

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Choosing to be faithful

Crucifix draft detailA sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, March 17, 2019.  The scripture readings are Genesis 15:1-12,17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, and Luke 13:31-35

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Gospel for next week begins with big questions for Jesus.  People have just asked him about the slaughter of innocent people and why a huge tower in another city fell and killed people.  Too many Sundays in the past few years, we gather after some sort of horrific event—a killing, a mass-murder, a catastrophe.  On Friday night, we prayed our Stations of the Cross with particular intentions for the victims of the mosque shootings in New Zealand and we pray for them and innocent victims everywhere again today.

But we have choices about how to respond—and that’s where faith comes in.  That’s where a life in Christ comes in.  That’s why we come to church, we gain strength from others in faith, we are nourished by the Sacraments, and we live for love.

St. Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians sounds fresh to us as he says, “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, . . . [so] stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.”

We are often confronted with whether to choose God or some other god, as in last week’s Gospel with Jesus tempted in the wilderness. We’re confronted with whether to choose the way of faithfulness or what might appear to be a quicker way of safety and comfort. And, finally (practically and personally) we’re often confronted with whether to choose blessing over curses.

In our first reading (from Genesis) Abram has to choose whether he’s going to keep on listening to this God who insists he is the One, True God or whether perhaps it’s time to try some other god. He hasn’t become Abra-ham, yet. He’s not totally convinced yet.
He hasn’t come to that point of conversion, marking a decisive change in his following God that even comes with a name change. It’s still early in the game. But God has promised. “Your reward will be very great,” God says. And so, Abram is wondering when the good stuff is going to start rolling in. “Where’s IS that reward, God? You’ve promised me children, where are they?”

But just at the point of Abram’s possibly choosing to go a different route, God answers. In this case, God saves him from making a bad choice. God says, stop doubting, stop worrying, just be faithful, hang on a little bit. “I am the Lord who brought from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” (In other words, I am the Lord who brought you out of the middle of nowhere into SOMEwhere. I know you, and you know me.) Lucky for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abram chooses God.

In today’s Gospel, the choices are subtle and hidden beneath all the action. The religious and secular leaders are feeling threatened by Jesus and so they try to run him out of town. But Jesus tells them to send a message to the leader.  “Jesus isn’t going anywhere.” He’s staying put and he’s staying faithful.

But Jesus knows that there are others who will decide to follow a different way. He mourns over the city of Jerusalem, a city that has rejected prophets in the past—a city that represents so much, a city with wealth, power, tradition, sophistication, creativity, diversity—but it seems to be choosing to reject Jesus, and in so doing, rejects the movement of God.

That’s a choice for us. We choose that citizenship in heaven. Sometimes our parents choose it for us at baptism, but we grow to a point where we choose Christ for ourselves. The choice may come at some formal occasion, such as a first Communion, or confirmation, a marriage, a funeral, or at some unexpected time. We can find ourselves choosing Christ in the midst of worship, or in the midst of prayer, or in a crisis, or in a time of emotional or spiritual intensity.

Sometimes the choices for being faithful come daily, if not hourly. Robert Morris, an Episcopal priest in New Jersey, describes an insight about this that came when he stubbed his toe. Wrestling with Grace: a Spirituality for the Rough Edges of Daily Life (Nashville: Upper Room, 2003).


He describes something most of us have probably experienced. He remembers walking through his house and accidentally stubbing his toe on a step. With his first breath, he yelled something along the lines of “God…” and he may have even added a few other words. But with his second breath, it occurred to him that the words he had already said were really a kind of prayer. To cry out, “God” – no matter what else may be added on is a kind of prayer.

That’s all in what Morris calls “the first breath.” But then there’s the opportunity of a second breath. In the second breath, we make a decision, we make a choice as to whether the prayer is going to be a blessing or a curse. When Father Morris stumped his toe, he realized that he had begun a prayer, and so he might as well finish it. “God” turned into “God bless,” “God bless my toe, God bless me in my clumsiness, God bless me and have mercy on me.”

Think about all the situations that come up for us daily in which we have the opportunity to turn first breaths into second breath prayers—the person on the other end of the phone, the person across from us at the meeting, the child who is ignoring everything we say or do or ask, the neighbor next door, the boss who can never be pleased, the family member who (after all these years) still doesn’t get it… They all can drive us to frustration and we can respond with a blessing or with a curse.

All deep religious practices, at some point, pay attention to the breath.  Yoga, tai chi, Christian meditation and Centering prayer all teach us to notice our breathing.  Christ invites us to pay attention to our first and second breath prayers.  The first ones are from the gut, they’re reactive.  But the second ones can come from a place of faith and reason and openness to God’s Spirit.  By paying such attention, by choosing blessing over curse, we begin to pray like Jesus prayed. In so doing, we choose to follow Jesus Christ, we choose to turn toward Jerusalem (and even the Cross), and we choose to turn toward God.

Choices surround all of us—but whether it’s about a career, or a special person, or finances; vocation, or how to respond to someone who makes us mad—may the Holy Spirit guide our choices, help us to watch our breath, and to live toward the way of blessing.  Any choice will have consequences as life plays itself out.  But with faith, the only bad choice is the one we make without God.  As long as we chose WITH God, God moves us toward blessing— with Abraham and Sarah, with St. Paul, with St. John and the Blessed Virgin Mary and the disciples, and with the faithful of every age—into the eternal blessing of Christ’s presence and peace.  Thanks be to God for the gift of choosing.

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

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Alone in a Room with God

jesus and the devil iconA sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, March 10, 2019.  The scripture readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mercy Me

pat_on_backA sermon for the Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, February 24, 2019. The scripture readings are Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-12, 41-42, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38,42-50, and 
Luke 6:27-38.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Our first scripture reading today is a teaser, almost, of one of the longest and best-developed stories in all the Bible.  The story of Joseph begins in Genesis 37 and continues all the way to Genesis 50.  If you ever saw the play or the film, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” then you know the story, as well.

Joseph is the favorite son of his father Jacob, but Joseph is also something of a spoiled brat. Because he was his father’s favorite, he was given a special garment, a coat that the King James Bible described as a “coat of many colors.” More recent versions call this a “coat with long sleeves,” but whether it was long-sleeved or many-colored, it was just one more reason for his brothers to hate him. His brothers find his dreaming and his special skills insufferable, to the point that they sell him into slavery, letting their father believe that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.

But Joseph eventually ends up in the house of an Egyptian official named Potiphar, is set up by Potiphar’s wife, and sent to jail, but gets out of jail because he can interpret dreams, and eventually ends up being a high official in the court of Pharaoh.  Because Joseph can predict the future, he is able to see that a famine is coming, so helps Egypt prepare and save for the famine.  At the height of the famine, Joseph’s brothers (still living back in Canaan) begin to search for grain and end up begging for food in Egypt.  They come to Joseph, but don’t recognize him as their brother.  And even though Joseph tests them a little, (and I like to think Joseph is really trying to decide whether he can forgive them or not), Joseph eventually decides to forgive, and we have the highpoint of the story—a story of forgiveness—that we heard in today’s scripture reading. Joseph hasn’t reached this position easily, surely. But he has had time to pray and think and grow.  He summarizes this near the end of chapter 50 when he remembers his brothers selling him into slavery, but says, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gn. 50:20).

We’re not often put in that position of Joseph, in which those who have intended evil to us, end up coming before us and needing something.  But if we were in that position—how would we act?  Would we go for the jugular and really make it hurt, seeking vengeance, wanting to feel like a wrong is being righted, somehow trying to balance scales of an eye for an eye?  Or do we remember Jesus, and remember his words?

In his Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul reminds his audience that the Resurrection reminds us of the power of the spirit.  We are more than base human desires, more than animals needing to fight for turf or prestige or possessions. We are also people of the spirit, and as such, are capable of being brought by the Spirit to new heights and new ways of behaving and new levels of loving.

Be merciful, Jesus says. Don’t judge, but be merciful.

I have a friend whose work is somewhat entrepreneurial—he’s basically a deal-maker, putting together various individuals and groups for successful business ventures.  He was recently put in a spot he had dreamed about.  Years ago, the friends of a friend had promised to help him in business, but backed out at the last minute, leaving my friend in debt and almost in bankruptcy.  Fast-forward to this year, when the same individuals approached my friend, asking for a deal that would save their business.  My buddy had a decision to make:  would he put into place one of the many plans for vengeance he had replayed in his imagination? Would he explain to them his dilemma?  Or would he simply move forward and let the situation unfold, relying on his new partners wo help him decide whether the new deal made sense or not?

What would we do?

Jesus says,

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Jesus is not saying, “embrace being the victim.”  Instead, he’s saying, even when we’re victimized, we still have agency. We can choose what to do next.  If we choose not to remain the victim, we can “turn the other cheek,” or “give shirt and pants as well as a coat,” and in so doing, we take control of the situation for good and for God’s good.  We turn the energy and the power of the equation and offer blessing, forgiveness, and a way forward.  We can say with Joseph, ““Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

In the days of St. Francis of Assisi, there was a young follower of Francis named Brother Angelo.  Brother Angelo was put in charge of one of the early Franciscan houses. He was the guardian of the house, while Francis and the other brothers went out and preached and begged for whatever food and drink they could find.

While the friars were out preaching and visiting, a gang of three notorious robbers came to the friary and knocked on the door.  When Brother Angelo answered, there stood the robbers, demanding food and drink.  Angelo, filled with the righteous indignation and fiery faith of a new convert, yelled at those robbers, “You robbers and cruel murderers… You aren’t ashamed to steal the hard work of others and now you’re bold and shameless enough to try to devour the alms sent to the servants of God!  You aren’t worth the ground to hold you up! … Go!  Mind your own business and never show yourselves here again!” And so they left.

When Francis and the other brothers returned, Brother Angelo excitedly told them how he had denounced the robbers and sent them on their way.  But Angelo was surprised by the response of Francis.  St. Francis reminded his brother that people are brought back to God more by sweetness than by rebuke.  He reminded them all how Jesus taught that it’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick; and how Jesus came not just for the good, but especially for those who find it hard to be good.  And so, Francis commanded Angelo, “Take this little bread and jug of wine.  Go and find those robbers and apologize.  Kneel in front of them and beg forgiveness for your rudeness and insist they take this bread and wine.

Brother Angelo did as he was told.  The robbers were so shocked and moved by his action, that they turned from their ways and joined Francis to become friars themselves.  [The Little Flowers of St. Francis, chapter 26, by Thomas Celano.]

Francis was teaching what Jesus taught: When wrong is done to us, the person of faith does not reciprocate.

It was hard for the ordinary friars to do this, but Francis showed them how.
It was hard for the disciples to do this, but Jesus showed them how, just as he shows us how.

In just a few weeks, we begin the Season of Lent.  You’ll notice that at the very beginning of our worship services, instead of saying or singing “Glory to God in the highest,” we’ll instead say or sing, “Lord have mercy upon us.”  Lent is a season for asking God’s mercy—but may the Spirit enable us not only to ask for God’s mercy to be shown to you and me, but also that God would enable us show mercy to ourselves, to one another, and to the world.

Lord have mercy, and let us also have mercy.


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“The Return of the Prodigal,” 1667-1670, Bartolome Esteban Murillo.

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 17, 2019.  The scripture readings are Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, and Luke 6:17-26

Listen to the sermon HERE

There’s a famous “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson that shows a man approaching a booth, as though he’s shopping. In the booth is another man and a group of tall, dark antelope, standing on their feet, as many of the animals in the “Far Side” world do.  Some of the antelope are smiling and looking cherubic, and others are making faces and acting up.  By now, you might have guessed the caption.  The salesman says, “Well, I’ve got good gnus and I’ve got bad gnus.”

In today’s Gospel there is good news and bad; there are blessings and there are those things that, if not “curses,” our NRSV translation refers to as “woes.”

Our scripture contains what sounds like the well-known Beatitudes, or “blessings.”  The Beatitudes are sayings offered by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount—at least in Matthew’s Gospel. We typically read them on All Saints’ Sunday and they are generally offered as comfort, encouragement, and reminders that God intends good for us, no matter how hard life might be in the moment.

But in Luke’s version, the one we just heard, the Beatitudes are fewer.  Matthew gives eight, but Luke only gives four.  And then Luke’s version adds the four “woes:”

…Woe to you who are rich,…
Woe to you who are full now,…
Woe to you who are laughing now,…
Woe to you when all speak well of you….

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is not on a mountain, but has come down on level ground with people. It is as though Jesus really is “leveling” with his followers and with us, giving us the promises but also being honest about the pains that are sometimes all wrapped up before, during, or after the promises come true.

All week, I’ve been struggling with how to approach today’s scripture readings in a way that does them justice—that conveys the hope and goodness God offers, while not shying away from the cost of following Jesus.  And then I saw a painting.

At the end of last week, I was able to get down to Washington, DC for a couple of days and a highlight was visiting the National Gallery.  While my thoughts a long way from preaching and even farther from today’s readings, I walked around a wall, into a gallery, and was dumbstruck by a painting that spoke to my questions about today’s scriptures.  The painting is by a seventeenth-century painter named Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.  Almost 8 feet by 9 feet, the painting shows the Return of the Prodigal Son.  It was painted for the Brotherhood of Charity Chapel of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry.  The brotherhood cared for travelers and the sick and it buried unclaimed corpses, often the drowned or executed. The painting by Murillo and others in the chapel were meant to urge the members of the charity to do good works—to follow the words of Jesus literally by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and honoring the forgotten. And so, by doing good to others, one finds blessing.

The painting shows the prodigal son in rags, and the father, along with the servants, are about to drape the returning son with new clothes, rich-looking, colorful, plush clothes.  A happy little boy is bringing the fatted calf into the scene, and there’s even a white little puppy, jumping at the returned son.

But we know the complicated dynamics of that story of the Prodigal—it is, itself, a story of blessing and of woes.  The son initially takes his life for granted and runs away, living only for himself.  He brings the woes on himself and returns broken, empty, and in need—in need for the help of a stranger, a servant, a family member, of God—anyone.  The father might have withheld his generosity from the son. The elder brother might have continued to resent the mercy of the father and the repentance of the brother.  And the son who returned might have stayed in a place of pride and arrogance, never finding the humility to ask for help.

The woes are real, as Jesus says so clearly:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

But overall, the story of the prodigal, like our faith, is one of blessings.

The first reading this morning from Jeremiah also contains this language of blessing and curse.  And yet, notice the real-world aspect of the sayings:  “cursed are those who trust in mere mortals …,” but “blessed are those who trust in the Lord…”   Jeremiah is not giving advice for a rainy day, or for life in some distant future, and certainly not promising that thinks will be better in the life after this earthly life.  Instead, Jeremiah is saying NOW, cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…  RIGHT NOW, HERE AND NOW, blessed are those who trust in the Lord.

Psalm 1 also supports this way of approaching life—the blessings come as we walk in the way of the Lord… wickedness happens when we choose some other way, or become self-consumed and forget God.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians puts a cross-shaped exclamation point on the necessity to choose Christ here and now, in this life.  The cross is either a made-up notion that gives some a little comfort as they imagine what comes after life and death… OR, as Paul puts it, Christ has been raised for us—and the benefits, the power, the blessings of that Resurrection began for us in this life and into the next.

Because of the Resurrection, we are empowered to face down fear. We can put increasing trust in God.

Because of the Resurrection, we take the long view and know that sin and death have been defeated, once for all… and so, when we stumble here and there, we say we’re sorry, we allow the Holy Spirit to dust us off and pick us up, and we keep on going.

Because of the Resurrection, we can take our place in stories like that of the Prodigal—whether we’re the youngest child who has squandered God’s gifts, and needs to turn and return home; or whether we’re the older child who is so blinded by resentment and the desire for our fair share that we miss God’s blessings; or whether we’re called to act with the mercy and grace of the parent, who offers forgiveness and love—no matter what has happened in the past.

It can help us to step back a minute and recall that the Gospel of Luke, with Jesus’s words of blessing and woe, was addressed to someone named Theophilus…the same person or persons for whom the Acts of the Apostle was originally written.  Theophilus is thought to have had social advantage– some wealth, some standing, some education.  And so, the original intended audience for Luke was someone or some people a lot like us, in the relative scheme of things.  Though we may not think of ourselves as wealthy, in the context of our world, we are among the richest, best fed, and best educated.  The Gospel preaches to each of us today.

The “woes” come in this life (and surely in the next) when we live only for self and ignore the pain of the world.  But the blessings are overflowing. They are ours to enjoy and share when we live with humility, vulnerability, and openness to God.

May Christ help us to be honest with our need, even as we seek to help meet the needs of others. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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Caught up in Christ

fishingA sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 10, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and Luke 5:1-11

Listen to the sermon HERE

The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of this particular fish tale appear also in Mark, Matthew and in John. But there are slight differences.

In Matthew, Jesus is baptized, he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and then he goes into Galilee. He sees Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing and Jesus interrupts their work. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-22).

Mark’s version is similar. the fishing story is placed within the larger context of Jesus calling his disciples, assembling his team, choosing his friends and followers. Follow me, he says. And they follow.

The Gospel of John adds characteristic drama as John places the story within a resurrection account. It is the risen Christ who offers tips on fishing, so that the disciples catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in.

In Matthew and Mark, these stories tell of the charisma and power of Jesus. It’s a force that hits people in immediate way. People meet Jesus, they see that there is something different about him, and for whatever (perhaps complicated) reasons, they leave what they’re doing and they follow. In John, it is Jesus with divinity showing through, able to know the future, able to affect the weather and the natural order of things, even to reverse the effects of death.

But in Luke’s story, (the Gospel we read today) there is a different focus, and we have a close-up on Simon Peter. The formal calling of the twelve apostles comes later in chapter 6 as Jesus chooses the twelve out of a larger gathering of people who seem already to have been following him.

When we hear Luke’s version of the fishing story, it comes not with the initial “follow me.” Jesus and Simon Peter already know each other by this point. Jesus has just healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Word has spread about Jesus through the towns and the synagogues and so there is none of that initial, startling surprise at the recognition that Jesus is someone special. Instead, there’s a kind of second recognition. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying to Simon Peter not so much “follow me,” but more, “keep following me,” “follow me even further,” “follow me in yet a different way.”

Simon is a fisherman. He knows what he is doing and he probably knows the waters of Galilee as well as anyone. When Jesus suggests that they drop fishing nets in a specific place, Simon complains that they have already been fishing all night. Nothing is biting.

This is the Simon Peter we know from other places in the Gospels: quick to speak his mind, fast to question Jesus, so bold even to talk back to Jesus. It is Simon Peter who names Jesus as the Christ. At the transfiguration, it is Peter who wants to act, to build shelters for the visiting Elijah and Moses. When there is talk of Jesus’ dying, Simon speaks out against it. After the crucifixion, it is Peter who speaks too quickly even then, denying Jesus three times.

It is a strong personality. I would imagine Simon was as sure of his fishing as he was of anything else. But by this point he knows Jesus and he trusts Jesus. The Lord says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon mutters, “We’ve fished all night, with nothing—but ok, if you say so.” And Jesus makes it so.

Suddenly, there are fish everywhere. They hit upon a whole school of fish. The fish are so many that the nets are breaking and they need extra help. Water is splashing, fish are flying and the boat is sinking, but Simon Peter suddenly “gets it” and he falls to his knees. He sees something new in Jesus; he sees something new in himself. “Go away from me, Lord” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” In that moment, Simon Peter recognizes his own willfulness, perhaps his pigheadedness, his need to get his own way, his need to understand everything, his lack of trust, and finally he confesses his need for someone stronger and wiser and more godly.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, repeating the words of angel after angel to so many; the word of God to humanity from the beginning to the end. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

This word that Jesus uses meaning “to catch” people, is a strange word. It includes in it the prefix we know from Greek that means life, “zoe”—as in zoo and zoology and protozoa, with animals and living things. And so the word Jesus uses, (zogron) means not that you’re going to be catching people and that’s that. But you’re going to be catching people for life, you’re going to be catching people and adding to their life, making their life more, helping them move into the fullness of life. It’s a word that is used to describe the process by which a teacher might “catch” a student, “catch him or her up” into a new way of thinking and living and being; a new and better way.

Before long Simon Peter and the other disciples would, indeed, be catching people for life, and they may not have understood until later that they would be catching people up even into eternal life.

The Gospel today speaks to us as a church and also as individuals.

As a community, as “church,” we are called to fish. If we have spent much time in church at all, we have probably heard of the “great commission,” those words in which Jesus charges his followers to go and make disciples of all the nations. Though we may interpret their urgency differently, though we may pursue different methods, most Christians agree that we are called to share our faith, to catch others up into the life of Christ, to offer baptism, to share Eucharist. But the practice of this catching, can leave us feeling tired or anxious or (looking around at empty pews) we can even feel a little desperate. Perhaps we are like Simon Peter. We’ve done the equivalent of fishing all night long. We’ve tried that program. We’ve tried reaching out in that way. Perhaps we’ve even tried offering door prizes and incentives—who knows what we might have tried, but we sometimes get to that place of resignation and frustration. Our nets are empty, we’re out of ideas and it’s getting late.

But perhaps it is at just this point that we are called to stop and listen like Simon Peter. I wonder if Jesus be pointing to the deep and saying something like, “but have you tried over there?” “Go out a little deeper and give it a try.” The church in our day spends money and energy trying to attract the young, trying to attract the rarest of things—the couple with children. We have fished and fished. But could it possibly be that Jesus might be pointing to others as well? Especially in this city, have we tried to reach the students? Have we done what we might to reach the elderly and aging? Have we tried to reach those who are working so many hours they don’t know what they’re looking for? Have we tried to reach those who don’t speak very good English? Have we tried to cast our net out there—into the deep, into the place we’ve not yet been? “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”

The Gospel indeed speaks a word of encouragement to our efforts at evangelism, but it also speaks a word of encouragement to our own understanding of who Jesus is.

Simon Peter shows us that there are levels to recognizing Jesus as the Christ. There is an initial surprise, if not shock that with Jesus things can be different. I can be different. But just as Peter grows in his understanding of Jesus, we too can grow and change in our reception of Christ, in the way that we allow ourselves to be caught up into new life. The old word for this is, of course, “conversion,” a turning and turning again to Christ, so that as we turn we see a new aspect of God even as we come to understand a new aspect of ourselves.

And, on this cold day in February, I think we are called to keep fishing, to keep catching people into the life of Christ, even as we allow ourselves to be caught anew.

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

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Growing Up (with the Spirit)

Jesus preaching

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 3, 2019. The scripture readings are Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, and Luke 4:21-30

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I had a nice surprise yesterday. I came home from our Vestry planning retreat and began to get settled, when the doorbell rang. When I opened the door, I initially did not recognize the woman in front of me—until she gave me her name and reminded me that we had gone to junior high and high school together.  We see each other on social media and comment on each other’s pictures of dogs.  Through the years, she has watched me move, begin ministry here, and travel to various places. I’ve watched her go through the loss of parents and a husband, and follow the course of her adult daughter and their three dogs.  While we caught up on this and that, we also talked about what brought the two of us so far away from North Carolina. Leaving home, for me, came with schools. Leaving home for my friend was a part of making a break with the past and looking for something new.

In today’s scripture, Jesus has left home and then returns.  And he’s all grown up. He’s changed. And he’s begun a public ministry of teaching and healing. While Jesus had grown up mostly in a small town named Nazareth, at some point, he got out. He’d seen things, and experienced things. He’d developed his own take on the world.

Some of this we know about from the Gospels: Jesus was baptized by John, he struggled with demons in the wilderness, and he taught in synagogues. Saint Luke says that Jesus was pretty well received, that he “was glorified by all.” But then he comes home.

We heard about this last week, as Jesus came home and went into the local synagogue. There, he read from the scroll those liberating words from Isaiah. But then he added the zinger. Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We got the first part of this story last week, but this week, it continues.

Momentum has been building around him. People speak well of him. They wonder at his wisdom, but that’s where they begin to get confused – after all, they know him, don’t they? Isn’t this just Mary’s boy? Isn’t this the stepson of Joseph, the carpenter?

Jesus hears their skepticism, and so he reminds them of the longstanding tradition of a prophet being welcome in almost every place EXCEPT for his or her home town. Jesus reminds them about the Old Testament prophet Elijah, who was sent to Zarephath. Elisha could have healed all the lepers of Israel, but instead, he healed the foreigner, Naaman the Syrian. Jesus’s suggestion that God’s mercy doesn’t always “stay local” just makes these people even madder.

Using a Super Bowl analogy, here, what should be a home advantage for Jesus quickly turns into a win for his enemies. The game almost ends as people in the synagogue try to run Jesus out of town.

Jesus has grown up. His faith has grown up, and he’s preaching a “grown up” Gospel. But people don’t want to hear it. Growing up in faith is hard to do—for Jesus, and for us.

In our first scripture reading, we hear how “growing up” or maturing in faith is hard for the Prophet Jeremiah, too—but for different reasons. We’re told of Jeremiah’s growing pains—especially in relation to his calling from God. Jeremiah had an even more complicated leave taking—he had tried to get away from home and leave the familiar but found he needed to face a few things first. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” God says, “and before you were born I consecrated you.” “I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Jeremiah tried to get out of this calling. He complained to God, “I’m too young. I’m inexperienced. I’m not trained. I’m not fit for service.” But God called him anyway. Later, when people seemed to ignore him or when they laughed at him, Jeremiah felt like he’s all alone. He moved away from almost everything that is familiar and comfortable. He ends up so far separated from those he loves, that he feels cut off from God. “O LORD, thou hast deceived me,” he says. But slowly and somehow, Jeremiah later realizes that he has, indeed, grown up into a new faith, a larger faith, a more mature faith. And God has been with him all the time.

Spiritual growth comes so often when we are willing to leave what is familiar. We grow with God often by leaving home, though “home” can be many different things. We’re sometimes called to move to a new job, with new expectations and challenges. Sometimes we’re called to move into new relationships where patterns and behaviors are different. Sometimes we’re taken to new cities or perhaps even new countries and we find ourselves needing to make new friends, to develop new social networks and to re-define family away from home.

And then, at times, the move away from home is more psychological, emotional, or spiritual.

I had a friend who died just a couple of years ago, but she had “moved” a lot spiritually, even though she rarely left her home town. She lived in a one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, but she read, she wrote friends, she prayed, she continued to learn until last year when she died. It’s no surprise, then that Charlotte had a well-traveled soul. Like in today’s Gospel, she was often misunderstood and made fun of by her family and even her local church. They didn’t understand her need for challenge or growth, and they sometimes found it threatening. But what I knew of Charlotte’s faith was her deep relationship with a God who almost plays hide and seek, who invites us to rise to a challenge and longs to show us new and complex depths to his love and mercy.

God calls us to grow up in our faith.

First, I think we can grow as individuals by praying perhaps more often, or perhaps by praying in a different way. If you’ve always prayed with words and you’re feeling tongue-tied, perhaps pray with your body—through movement, or walking, or dancing. (This Lent, there’ll be a morning workshop on March 30 that looks at the very basics of prayer:  What is it? How does it work?) If you’ve got a question about God, chances are others have asked that question. Ask a priest, or check a library, or search the Internet and learn different answers to that question you’re carrying around.

And second, I think we may be called to grow up in our faith as a church, as a congregation. The parts of our common life that make us warm and friendly, cozy and accessible, should never change. But I wonder if we’re aren’t also being called to dust ourselves off a bit, get to know our neighbors better (the old ones and especially the new ones) and engage at a still deeper level. As our city officials wrestle with homelessness, perhaps we’re being called upon to add our voice—a voice of faith based in experience. As families move into our neighborhood, perhaps we’re being called on in new ways to help overworked parents teach children about spirituality, about music, and about mission. As more and more people walk by this church every day, I wonder if God isn’t calling us to make the welcome more explicit and offer the Living Water that we KNOWS quenches and soothes, but also enlivens and strengthens.

When personal crises come, they catch us off guard if our faith is still that of a child. When crises and challenges hit a parish, we’re caught off guard if our faith isn’t developed or is out of shape. We’re called to grow. Saint Paul reflects, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

Christ calls us to take his hand and grow. Risk offending. Risk being misunderstood. Risk being thought a little crazy. Risk loving too much, too freely, too widely, and too long.

This kind of “growing up” can seem scary. We might feel like children desperate to be close to a parent. We might feel like teenagers, unsure how the growth will show itself next, or how we’ll feel or what we’ll believe tomorrow. We might be like middle-aged adults, a little smug and tired, and wondering if God can really show us anything new. Or we might even feel like we’ve already done about as much as we can do—the good news this day and always is that God is not finished with us yet.

Wherever we are, whoever we are, we can be confident in the adventure of faith because God is with us. Just as God reminded Jeremiah that he was known in the womb before he was born, God has also consecrated us and chosen us. God knows each of us. God knows our fears and our limitations, but God also knows our potential and what we are made for.

As we learn to leave the cozy places of our faith, let us grow together— in love and mercy, in grace and forgiveness, and in joy and strength.

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


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Spiritual Gifts

wedding-feast-at-cana-mosaicA  sermon for the Second Sunday after The Epiphany, January 20, 2019.  The scriptures are Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, and John 2:1-11.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Many of you are probably familiar with he Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” The first verse sings,

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…

And that truly is a gift, isn’t it:  to come down where we ought to be, to have that feeling of, “yes,” this place is just right, this job is just right, this relationship is just right, this prayer is just right.

“Simple gifts” does keep things simple, but sometimes it’s not so simple to recognize a gift.  Especially if we think of what St. Paul refers to as “spiritual gifts” in today’s Letter to the Corinthians—things are not always so simple.

In, and around the Church, when we think of “spiritual gifts,” a lot of us tend to think of those obvious and extreme kinds of gifts—speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation, such as occurred on the Day of Pentecost and happens now among Pentecostal Christians.  Or, in parts of Appalachia and elsewhere, there are Christians who read a few verses of scripture, take them literally, and believe that God gives them the spiritual gift to handle live snakes while in a kind of deep prayer or trance.  Another spiritual gift that stands out is healing. And so, there are certain spiritual gifts that really stand out and we’re likely to think they belong only to a few.

But notice the long list of spiritual gifts Paul mentions in today’s reading:

the gift of wisdom,
working of miracles,
speaking in tongues and the gift of interpreting what is spoken

Later, in the same chapter, Paul adds other gifts—in no way meaning to be exclusive in his listing, but to expand what we think of as a spiritual gift.  He adds the gifts of teaching, of administration, of offering assistance, of doing “deeds of power” (which are not necessarily miracles, but simply a good project well-conceived, followed-through, and completed, all for the glory of God.

And perhaps that’s what makes a “spiritual gift” different from another kind of quality or characteristic someone might have.  A spiritual gift comes from God and works with God to somehow enlarge and expand, a spiritual gift works somehow and some way in the unfolding of God’s kingdom.

And while spiritual gifts come from God, we often need other people of faith to see the gifts that are within us.

I bet each of us can think of a teacher, a family member, a neighbor, or a mentor who looked at us and noticed something we hadn’t quite yet noticed.  That person said, “you’re really good at this… have you ever thought of doing it more?  Sometimes it takes another person to work as a kind of spiritual mirror before we can see the gifts within ourselves.

This weekend our country remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflects on his legacy.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a prophet, but that prophecy didn’t come out of nowhere. He had family and community all around him to reflect and grow and nurture that spiritual gift within him.  As he wrote, “I’m just a Baptist preacher…. this is my being and my heritage. For I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher” (King, “The Un-Christian Christian”).  Whenever he doubted himself, King not only had God supporting him, but he also had that whole line of folks among the Communion of Saints who cheered him on and who prayed for him.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision shocked people and shocks some people still—but that’s a part of being a prophet.  In our first reading, Isaiah is shocking the people of God who have felt lost, abandoned and cut off.  Isaiah shocks them awake by saying, not only has God never forgotten you for a minute, but God loves you with a love that surpasses marriage and the greatest love affair imaginable—“You shall be called by a new name . . . .You shall be a crown of beauty . . . . You shall be called My Delight . . .”

There’s a bit of prophecy in today’s Gospel, the Gospel also includes a number of other things—the first of Jesus’s signs, the enlargement of God’s realm, the making of little into much—but it’s also about the unveiling and use of spiritual gifts.

The Virgin Mary exercises several spiritual gifts in this story.  She has the gift of discernment—of “reading a room,” and taking in a situation and seeing it not only for what it is, but also for what it can become.  She has a gift of encouragement, as she suggests doing something to Jesus.

If we think back a couple of weeks, we recall how Mary, soon after receiving the news that she would bear the Son of God, visited her relative Elizabeth.  Elizabeth seems to have worked as a kind of spiritual mirror for Mary, helping Mary see within herself the grace, the blessedness, the faith, and the strength to follow God.  Mary’s gifts of discernment and faith grow and increase.

In today’s Gospel, we see Mary a little older and Jesus a young man. When they attend the wedding, it’s Mary’s gifts that save the day.  She tells Jesus, “Do something.” And we hear his comment that sounds a little like a snarky teenager to a parent.  I think this is one of those rare windows in which we see Jesus developing as the Son of God, as he slowly realizes his own spiritual gifts.  I imagine Mary shooting Jesus one of those looks that only a mother can give—the kind of look that says, “You know what to do, now stop complaining and do it.”

And Jesus does it. He makes the miracle of water into wine—not so much for the wonder of the miracle itself but for what it shows and promises.  It says, “this is how God works.  God stirs up abilities and talents and strengths within each of us that we never might have imagined.  And miracles will occur.”

Elizabeth provides a mirror for Mary.
Mary provides a mirror for Jesus.
And Jesus, as the Risen Christ who shines through each of us, provides a mirror for us, and through us, for one another.

One of the great blessings of “being Church” is that we have a room of holy mirrors—the saints in the windows and the saints in the pews.  Let the Holy Spirit stir up spiritual gifts in you.  And let the Spirit use you to stir up, encourage, and enflame spiritual gifts in the people near you.  It’s the easy work of the world to criticize, to see what’s lacking, or to measure, quantify, or assess. But it’s the work of the Spirit of God to unveil, to encourage, to embolden, and to nurture spiritual gifts.

That great Shaker hymn I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon continues on . . .

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.

I like the “turning, turning,” the re-turning in that hymn, because it suggests to me that, as people of faith we are always learning, growing, turning and returning to God.  As long as we live on this earth, and perhaps beyond, God’s Spirit fan and inflames spiritual gifts within us.  May we be attentive and faithful to grow.

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


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The Rector’s Annual Report: Baptized for Mission

Easter 2017 processionThe Annual Meeting of The Church of the Holy Trinity was held on January 13, 2019. The rector’s annual report and overview of 2018 was given in the form of the sermon. The scripture readings for The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Introduction: The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Today is our annual parish meeting and like many churches, we like to understand our one worship service as being the first part of that parish meeting.  Accordingly, it’s my practice to offer my Annual Report for the previous year as the sermon, as I try to draw some connections between the scripture readings we have just heard and my sense of our previous year in faith and mission.

This First Sunday after the Epiphany is known as The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ, asking us to notice that in his baptism, Jesus opens a way for us to new life in this world and beyond.  The scriptures point to the baptism of Jesus and invite us to remember our own baptism. In the first reading, God says through the Prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” John the Baptist brings a message of baptism for repentance of sins, but as he baptizes Jesus we see that baptism not only is about our being washed and made clean, but baptism also has something to do with our being bathed in God’s love.  Through baptism, God says to each of us, “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And so, from the scriptures and from our own tradition, we see that Baptism empowers us to live in the fullness of God’s love and that means at least three things:  it means 1) we get wet, 2) we make a splash, and 3) we share the water.

Living Out our Baptism: Getting Wet
As I look back over our year of faith together in 2018, I can see how we have tried to live out our baptismal vows.  First, we’ve “gotten wet.”

By “getting wet,” I mean that we are baptized—either as infants, children, or sometimes as adults, but also we live into that baptism as we deepen our faith, as we question, as we learn, as we grow together.  The Church often calls this Christian Formation.  Many of us grew up talking about Christian Education, but more recently, people have come to recognize that growing in Christ is about more than our minds—it’s about our whole being, so we are “formed” increasingly in the image of Christ.

Back in the day (and still, in some parts of our country), as many people attend Christian formation classes and programs as attend a main worship service.  In New York, demographics and the pace of life work against that model, but we do our best.  In 2018, Advent and Lenten Quiet Days (mini-retreats) offered time to go a little deeper and the Sunday morning Adult Christian Education I began in 2016 continued to provide opportunities for learning and growing.  In 2019, we’ll be adding a children’s program again.

I’m grateful to Sarah Montgomery and Eunice Ng for beginning and coordinating the Young Adult gatherings, and though I had nothing to do with it, I’m especially glad for the focus they’ve chosen.  While some churches see young adult fellowships as primarily social, Eunice and Sarah invite people in their 20s and 30s to gather at the rectory for a meal and then they discuss a spiritual issue, a theological question, or a section of the Bible.

Both within and beyond our church, a number of parishioners are involved in Cursillo, a program that invites Christians into renewal and deepening, and they are always eager for new people to go on a Cursillo weekend. (Lydia Colón and Jean Blazina are especially involved.)  Susan Valdes-Dapena and I are active with the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis and in 2018 Holy Trinity enjoyed the fellowship of Third Order Franciscans on a number of occasions.

A big part of our growing in our life with Christ is simply keeping the church family together, and much of the oversight for this particular household of God comes belongs to our Vestry.  I’m grateful to the entire Vestry for a great year together, but especially want to thank the four members who complete their terms this year: Jean Geater, David Liston, Marlin Mattson, and Liz Poole.  Enormous thanks goes to Inez Lambert who has served as a Warden of Vestry for two terms: four years, and now takes a break.

A big way in which we plunged into faith in 2018 involved our participation with the program called Renewal Works.  The basis for the conversation about faith and priorities in faith began with an online survey called the “Spiritual Life Inventory.”  While some of us wrestled with the language of the survey and were frustrated that it didn’t always allow us to answer questions the way we might have preferred, it has begun a good conversation about God in our lives—what we’re experiencing and what we want to experience. We have had remarkable participation: 116 people responded to the Spiritual Life Inventory, which is 89 % of our 2017 average Sunday attendance of 131.  I’m grateful to the Renewal Works Team (Alexandra Harrington Barker, Lydia Colon, Beth Thomas Kleinbart, Joseph Lipuma, Yvonne O’Neal, Ashley Malmfeldt Shepherd, Marlin Mattson, Calvin du Toit, Patsy Weille, Barbara Whitney, and Louisa Young) most of whom attended two long dinner meetings and four workshops to pray, discuss, and imagine the spiritual life of Holy Trinity.  In 2019, the new vestry will continue working with the Renewal Works findings, and you’ll be hearing more about specific ways we want to move forward, trying to meet some of the spiritual needs of our current parish that lead to a growth of those here and those yet to join us.

The results of the Renewal Works survey are interpreted in the context of more than 200 Episcopal Churches who have taken the survey and some 1,800 churches of other denominations.  We discovered that almost half of our 116 respondents fall into the category of “Growing a life with God in Christ.” Another almost-half fall into the initial stage of “Exploring” (28%) or “Deepening” (22%).  This means that there is lots of room to explore, grow, try things, and see where the Spirit leads.

Based on the experiences and results of other churches, there are a series of “best practices” that can become a part of a church’s over the next 2 to 3 years.  These best practices include our working to “get people moving,” “embed the Bible,” “create more ownership” and “pastor the community.”  Embedding the Bible and creating more ownership are aspects of our faith that might have to do with this image of deepening, or, put in terms of our baptism, of “getting wet.”  But the other two best practices from the Renewal Works program have to do with another aspect of our living out our baptism:  making a splash.

In terms of the Renewal Works language, we’ll explore more in the future how better to “get people moving” and “pastor the community,” though in all truth—we already do this pretty well.  We can simply grow and increase our energy and faithfulness.

Living Out our Baptism: Making a Splash
Our “making a splash” begin early in 2018 as many from our parish joined others around the city and the world tried to respond to the political changes in our country and across the globe.  Many of us gathered for the January Women’s March, continuing to advocate for justice and opportunity for women.  Whether the issue has had to do with women, the economy, healthcare, or immigration, many from our parish have prayed deeply for God to show us how to live out our faith in a world that continues to celebrate meanness, selfishness, and quick fixes.

A number of our parishioners “made a splash” in our diocese, with representation on councils and committees and efforts teaming up with other churches.  Our own warden, Yvonne O’Neal, represented us at the triennial national gathering of Episcopalians called General Convention, and served on numerous other boards and task forces, reminding us that our parish is a part of a larger church that stretches through the world.

In Advent of 2018, I visited our link parish of St. Stephen’s with St. John’s in the Diocese of London, preached there, and met many of the parish and parish council.  Again in 2018, our parish and those at St. Stephen’s developed a Lenten devotional together.  Their vicar, the Rev. Graham Buckle, will be visiting us at the end of January and will be preaching here on January 27 and we will continue to think about possibilities for ministry together—learning from each other and growing in our witness to Christ in urban, diverse cities.

Holy Trinity continued to make a splash in our neighborhood, with members serving on Community Board 8, and helping to lead local historical and civic groups.  Our parish was put in a wonderful spotlight on International Women’s Day last March as our own Erlinda Brent received a Woman of Distinction Award from State Assembly member Rebecca Seawright.  Even though Dudley Stone officially retired from serving as artistic director of The Triangle Theatre, Dudley’s standards were maintained as Triangle offered readings and plays that made a theatrical splash but also created a nice sense of community among those who participate and those who attend.

Holy Trinity “made a splash” around possible preservation work on the rectory for the last two years, as we navigated the process of city government, but thanks to the work of Franny Eberhart and others, and the guidance of good real estate attorneys and the encouragement of local officials, the scaffolding is up and work has begun.

You’ll recall that the exterior rectory work has to do with the purchase of the Rhinelander Building by Mr. Arun Alagappan and his company Advantage Testing, Inc.  Because the Rhinelander Building is zoned for non-profit use, Advantage Testing has asked The Church of the Holy Trinity’s cooperation in obtaining a special permit that will allow Advantage’s for-profit tutoring business and foundation to operate next door. Advantage has applied for the special permit under Section 74-711 of the NYC Zoning Resolution, which allows the Rectory’s lot to be merged with the lot at 350 East 88th Street for zoning purposes only. Because our church buildings (316 East 88th) and rectory (332 East 88th) are zoned as separate lots, the rectory is the only building that can benefit from this opportunity for preservation work.  To summarize, the arrangement means that Advantage Testing covers up to $25,000 of our consulting fees, $100,000 of our legal fees in the course of the work, and will pay $10,000 for the first annual inspection, required by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.  Advantage will pay for $1 million in preservation work on the rectory.  Should the cost go above that, the church agrees to be responsible for up to $300,000, and should the costs go above that, Advantage will cover another $300,000.  In no instance will the work go above $1.6 million. Though they are still waiting on additional permits for work, little by little, the work has begun.

And finally (and perhaps obviously, to many) we’ve been making a splash on Sunday evenings with our building’s frequent appearance in the new CBS series, “God Friended Me.”  Even though the intrusion of filming crews and their associated support systems can cause a lot of upheaval, overall, our parish has greatly benefitted from the experience.  The filming will slow down, but we are grateful for the income and the energy and recognition that has come through the series.

Living Out our Baptism: Sharing the Water
Because of our baptism, we are called to get wet, and to make a splash, but we’re also called to share the water with a thirsty world. We are fortunate with our location and the beauty of our building that we attract visitors to all our worship services.  With lay leaders and my musical colleagues Cleve Kersh and Calvyn du Toit, we aim to maintain what the Prayer Book calls “the beauty of holiness” while being welcoming, inviting, and evangelical in the best sense of that word.  We kept our regular worship schedule with the 8 AM service being small and friendly.  The 11 AM service continued with a bit more pageantry but (we hope)  never took itself too seriously.  We moved our 6 PM service into the church from Draesel Hall, and that service continued to be a bit more relaxed and informal.  You may notice we’ve changed the name of our 6 PM service from “Contemporary Eucharist (which makes it sound experimental, or like something it’s not) to “Community Eucharist,” which seems to describe the makeup of our worshipping community that is probably the most porous regarding labels of denomination or religious practice.

We’ve tried to share the water (and some of the wonder that is Holy Trinity) through increased participations in the Sacred Sites Open House Weekend which last year coincided with our May Fair.  With organ demonstrations and tours of the building, we invited people to come inside, to look closely, and to hear a little about this community.  Building on that weekend, Catherine Henihan and Barbara Whitney coordinated a team of tour guides who began offering tours of the church every Sunday after the 11 AM worship service.

Perhaps the busiest and most active way that we shared water with others in 2018—spiritually and literally—was through the programs of Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center (known as HTNC).  Through the leadership of our president David Liston, and an amazing Board, we continued to coordinate amazing ministry on very little overhead. Emma Sebanne lead the kitchen team on Tuesdays to provide a good meal for seniors. Four different teams and our HTNC Board cooked the Saturday evening dinners, and we staffed a shelter for up to 14 homeless men five nights a week, entirely through volunteers who spent the night.  Again, coordinating our volunteer schedule was former Holy Trinity member Melanie Hill, who, even though she lives upstate, she coordinates volunteers remotely.  Our neighbor Mark Roshkind continued to offer supervision and oversight of the shelter volunteers and provided our primary liaison with the Main Chance Drop-in Center.  Huge thanks to all.

We live out our baptism by getting wet, making a splash, and sharing the water, and that’s the great gift of our parish life together.  Baptism also provides a paradigm of life itself—as one dies to sin and rises to new life through baptism, the sacrament foreshadows the moment when we die to this world and rise again to new life.  In 2018 we mourned the deaths of Jackie Albert, and in the larger Holy Trinity family, Sylvia Appenzellar Norell, and Fred Burrell.  Many of you also lost family members and friends, and we included them in our prayers.  We miss them, but we also feel their presence in the whole Company of Saints, who pray for us, wish us well, and offer us strength.

I’m grateful to our parish staff: to Erlinda Brent, who does more than any one job title might ever describe; to Arold Dorsinvil, Ozel Ryant, our sextons, and José Cornier, who joined us this year—they keep things going and always appear at just the right time.  Cleveland Kersh and Calvyn du Toit continue to teach me as they lead us to worship and know God through sound and the silence between the notes. And finally, thanks to all of you who make Holy Trinity your church home.

I was talking to an Episcopal monk at Holy Cross Monastery one day when he asked me about Holy Trinity. I explained that in many ways we are rebuilding: with our congregation, with our understanding of mission, and little by little—with our facilities.  He smiled and said, “In this day, if a church is alive at all, it’s working at rebuilding.” Given the distractions and the challenges of our culture, I think that monk is right. The Holy Spirit is remaking us, reshaping us, and rebuilding us. In 2018, we were blessed to see more people attending, more people participating, donations and outside income on the rise, and little signs that things are improving (a front gate that opens and closes without dragging, major preservation work courtesy of a new neighbor, a new cleaning regimen through HTNC for the basement level of St. Christopher’s House, and other small improvements.)

May God bless us in 2019 and show us new ways to live out our baptism: continuing to get wet, make a big splash, and always and everywhere offer to share the water with others.

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

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