The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Saturday, May 31, 2008

What bird...?

So I'll admit it. This post is entirely so I can make sure I know how to embed YouTube videos for when an occasion arises for me to do so.

Yeah... That's what the previous one was, too.

But regardless, I think you'll enjoy both videos. Have fun!

Einstein

Here's a little video about the book I'm reading now: Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe

Every little thing is gonna be alright?

May 25, 2008
Pentecost 2A, Proper 3
Matthew 6:24-34


In the name of God. Amen.

“Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear…. But strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”

That’s nice, isn’t it? Just quit worrying, because God’s going to give you every thing you need. If you listened closely to the Gospel reading this morning, you could almost hear Bob Marley in the background: “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. I guess I could just go ahead and sit down. We should probably just all go home. God will take care of everything. As the bumper sticker theologian put it, “Let go and let God.” Right?

So why am I still standing here? If it’s true that “all these things will be given to you” as Matthew has said, why are we all here? Why are we all still engaged in the process of discerning God’s will for the church? Or for ourselves?

Worry is a natural phenomenon. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another. Some of us are probably experiencing it right now. So in some ways, this text makes me angry. “Don’t worry”?? We do worry. We will worry. Isn’t it a little condescending for the writer of the Gospel to put these words into Jesus’ mouth? Would he really have told us to just stop worrying?

And remember, these words are spoken as a part of the Sermon on the Mount. They are spoken by the very man who, as the story progresses, will lead his followers into Jerusalem, and who will be brought before Pontius Pilate, and who will eventually suffer death on the cross. He is going to tell us not to worry? I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

I doubt that any of us are fated for the kind of life and death that Jesus had, but even so, we have our own causes for worry. Gas prices continue to inch toward four dollars a gallon – never mind the encroaching summer travel season, we’ll still have to get to work each day. And no matter how close to retirement you are, or thought you were, the stock market continues to show signs of recession. Perhaps you are comfortable in your home, but the ever-growing foreclosure rates and the instability that the threat of homelessness creates in many people in our society doesn’t help anyone. Both in Wall Street offices and Main Street convenience stores, crime rates will rise as a direct function of the slowing economy. As savings accounts dwindle and credit lines are maxed out, people will become desperate. It always happens.

And that’s not all. Even beyond our comparatively superficial economic woes, we can see signs of disaster around the world. Tens of thousands of people have died from the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. New Orleans still has only barely begun to recover from hurricane Katrina, and now we’re on the cusp of yet another storm season. Already this spring, tornadoes have ravaged the mid-west and wildfires are beginning to appear in Florida and California. Moreover, the yet-to-be comprehended effects of global warming continue to threaten every living creature – even us.

“Every little thing is gonna be alright?” I’m not so sure. We have plenty of cause for worry. And I’m sure you could think of more personal reasons that I haven’t even mentioned. So I hope Matthew and Bob Marley will forgive me if I don’t just blindly jump on board.
Of course we will worry. Jesus knew we would worry. Advising us against worry as he did wasn’t a preventative measure. It was a recognition that in our worrying, our energy is often misplaced.

If all we hear in this text is Matthew’s Jesus naïvely telling us not to worry, we’ve missed an important piece of the advice. Bob Marley may have stopped at encouraging us not to worry, but Jesus offered something more: “strive first for the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness, and all these things [the things for lack of which you could consume yourself with worry – all these things] will be given to you.”

It’s a radical concept! Strive first for the kingdom of God – before we even consider our own needs or desires. It’s not just “Don’t worry” – he’s saying, don’t worry about the stuff. Don’t worry about money or possessions or superficial needs. If we strive first for the kingdom of God, we needn’t even worry about necessities like food or clothing. It’s counterintuitive, I know. When you’re hungry, it’s only natural to worry about where your next meal will come from. When you’re facing foreclosure on your home, it’s only natural to worry about where the next payment will come from. When you’re lonely it’s only natural to long for affection.
But what if we really did join Jesus in this counterintuitive thinking? What would it mean to strive first for the kingdom of God, instead of striving first for our own desires? What would it mean to replace all of our worries about things with an eagerness for the glory of God to be realized on earth?

Jesus isn’t telling the hungry, or the poor, or the lonely to stop worrying. More so, he is telling us – those who are not lacking – that it should not be their job to worry. We all have areas in our lives where we are lacking and areas in our lives where we are not lacking. But if we all would strive first for the kingdom of God as it can be realized in our midst, then there would be no need for any of us to worry over our human needs. The kingdom of God among us would be defined by the reality that all of our needs would be met. If I am striving first for the kingdom of God then my neighbor will never be hungry. My neighbor will never be homeless. My neighbor will never be lonely. If we spend less time worrying over my own want of material possessions and superficial comforts, and more time striving to realize the kingdom of God, then that realization of God’s vision for humanity would ensure that all of our needs would be met: mine, yours, and those of our neighbors, both here and around the world.

As we examine our lives as members of the Christian community, we must continually ask ourselves: what would it mean if we would make the radical, counterintuitive commitment to strive first and foremost for the realization of God’s vision for humanity in the world? If we made such a commitment, what worries could we allow to rest?

Could a world torn apart by war and crime be healed by people of prayer? Perhaps. A discipline of prayer yields peace in individuals. Imagine how our tolerance for unnecessary human suffering would be affected if, as a people, we disciplined ourselves to be people of prayer and allowed our actions to be governed by that peace instead of by our fears. An active commitment to peace could become as infectious as the fear it replaces.

Can the church really speak to the epidemics of anonymity and loneliness that are so rampant in our culture? I think so. When we shift our focus from corporate strategies for growth to Christian strategies for compassion community will emerge. And the light of community will outshine the darkness of solitude that perverts God’s vision for the world.

God’s vision for humanity already exists. We are not called to build it or to create it. God has already done that heavy lifting for us. But we are called to strive toward it, even in the face of all the other kingdoms of this world that might stand in its way.

So don’t worry about a thing. Every little thing is going to be all right. But, rather than allowing yourself to be consumed with worry, strive instead to make real God’s vision for humanity. When you do, all the little things will fall into place. Amen.
May 11, 2008
The Day of Pentecost, A
John 20:19-23

In the name of God: in whom we live, and move, and have our being. Amen.

Did you hear that? Did you hear what the Spirit was saying to the Church?

In my preparations for preaching this week, I’ve been rereading Bishop Spong’s book The Easter Moment. Oh, I know, I know. I know we’ve been celebrating Easter since back in March. I know that today is not Easter Sunday. It’s Pentecost – the day when we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to the Body of Christ. I know that today is the day where we shift ourselves, liturgically. We put away the white, and for the next several months we’ll be in the “long green season” – the Season after Pentecost. It will carry us through the rest of Spring, through the flowers and the end of school, and the Ice Cream social and the Parish Picnic. It will carry us into summer. Through vacations, and days by swimming pools and at the Shore. And even after summer begins to fade, and the leaves begin to turn, and we get the first chills of a new winter – even then, the Season after Pentecost will endure. In the church we’ll shift our focus from the big moments of Jesus’ life that have captured our attention for so long: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week and Easter – and we’ll concentrate our attentions on the less dramatic moments: we’ll be a little more intentional about reflecting on his teachings and his parables, his relationships in his community. We’ll slow down a little. We’ll see a different side of Jesus. It will be a little more “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and a little less “Jesus Christ Superstar”.

But where does that leave us now? It’s not still Easter – at least not like it was before, but we’re not yet where we will be.

To a large degree, I think that may be what Pentecost is all about: it’s a shift between two extremes. Jesus’ followers had lived with him, and prayed with him, and worked with him and learned from him. They challenged him. They disappointed him. They made him angry. They inspired his compassion and he earned their love. And now, in the despair and the anxiety of that first Easter, they had to find a way to go on – to spread the Word.

You may not have noticed it, but we read two very different stories this morning that both recounted the giving of the Holy Spirit. The first lesson was from the Book of Acts. In that lesson, we were told that the disciples were all gathered in one place – in a house. It was the Jewish festival of Pentecost – their celebration of the giving of the Torah after their deliverance from Egypt. It had been more than a month since Jesus had died, and still the disciples were together, still they were unsure of how to go on. Suddenly, their gathering was interrupted by the sound of a violent wind. It rushed in and filled the house. As it spread around each of them, it began to divide into individual flames, and each of the flames rested on each one of them. In the fullness of their experience of the Holy Spirit, they began speaking in languages that were not their own. They told the stories of Jesus. They told about the action of God in the world. Between the great noise of the Holy Spirit and then the great cacophony of voices that followed, the disciples, almost in hiding, began to draw a crowd. People from all over the world were in Jerusalem and they came to see this great thing that was happening. Many of them were amazed at what was happening and expressed wonder at this evidence of God in their midst. But others were cynical. They could not believe that these followers of Jesus could be showing signs of God’s presence in their lives. They made excuses, “Perhaps they’re drunk.”

Sometimes that’s how the Holy Spirit makes herself known – through flashy displays of surprising action. Through dramatic, “Jesus Christ Superstar” moments. I’ve seen the Holy Spirit work in that way. Oh, I’ve never seen anyone speaking in tongues. While I know such experiences of faith are an important part of the piety of many people, I have to admit, if I were to see it, I would probably be like the cynical observers in the Book of Acts – I would probably wonder if some kind of foul play were afoot, or I’d try to make excuses for it. But even so, there have been a few moments in my life when I could feel the presence of God through the Holy Spirit as surprisingly and undeniably as a violent wind.

One such moment happened for me nearly two years ago in Columbus, Ohio, of all places. I was at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church. This is the chief legislative body of our church. It’s the once-every-three-years meeting where representatives from every diocese come together to establish policies and laws for our church and to elect our leaders. This convention was a particularly tense one. Many people in the church were still feeling betrayed and angry about the actions of the Convention in 2003, which consented to the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the Bishop of New Hampshire. We were struggling to find answers to give to the worldwide Anglican Communion, much of which was also angry with us. Talk of schism in the church was literally around every corner.

In the midst of all of this anxiety and exhaustion, The Episcopal Church was in the process of electing a new Presiding Bishop. There were several highly qualified candidates, one of whom was Katharine Jefferts Schori, then the Bishop of Nevada, and the first woman ever to be nominated for the office. Some people suggested that though she was the most qualified candidate, she could never be elected because the Convention would never take such a bold step so soon after the still-fresh controversies of 2003. But on Sunday, June 18, 2006, our bishops, sequestered in Trinity Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio, did just that. They elected Katharine Jefferts Schori as our Presiding Bishop – not just the first woman to hold such an office in The Episcopal Church, but the first woman to hold such an office in the Anglican Communion.

But, meanwhile, back at the Convention Center, those of us who were not bishops had no idea what was happening. We were gathered together, doing our part in the work of the church, and waiting for our bishops to report their election. Rumors began to circulate that an announcement was imminent. The gallery for visitors, which, during most of the convention accommodated 20 or 30 guests, was now brimming with several hundred. When the President of the assembly interrupted the business at hand to announce the election, every voice in the room gasped – a violent rush of wind. There were a few distant yelps of surprise, out of joy or despair, I wouldn’t know. Over the next couple of hours, the House of Deputies consented to the election of the House of Bishops, the Bishops joined us, and the Presiding Bishop-elect came to address the church for the first time.

It was a spirit-filled time for me to witness the church in action. Even in the midst of our anxiety and exhaustion, the Spirit had moved in the midst of us in an entirely new way. Of course there were cynics. Some people suggested that Bishop Katharine’s election was a plot by the conservative movement in the church to further encourage schism. Many people analyzed the reports of a few bishops about the ongoing politics in the bishops’ chamber. Whatever undercurrents may have been at play, I remain convinced that they played at the whim of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit does not always act out in the dramatic way described in the Book of Acts or with the rush of wind that I felt at General Convention. Sometimes the Holy Spirit is experienced in a gentle breeze – or a breath.

I remember a particular day when I was in High School about fourteen years ago. I don’t remember the details, but I was stressed. I was feeling the pressures of adolescence. I felt alone. I left my house and was out, driving in the rural area around the city where I lived. I was listening to Schubert’s Deutsche Messe and trying to clear my head. During the climax of the Sanctus, my favorite movement, I briefly glanced to the left. As I heard those words sung in German, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” I saw the most beautiful sunset that I had ever seen and I was filled with peace beyond my ability to describe it. I felt the Holy Spirit. Whatever had been troubling me had not been taken away, but it was put to rest. My anxiety was replaced by peace.

That’s the story of the giving of the Holy Spirit that we hear in the Gospel According to John. The disciples are afraid. Jesus, whom they had been following, had been executed only days before. They feared that a similar fate might be ahead for themselves.

There, in the locked room where they were hiding from the ones whom they feared might kill them, Jesus appeared. Not with a rush of wind or a cacophony of voices, but with the subtle declaration, “Peace be with you.” And then, with the softness of a breath, they received the Holy Spirit.

So what’s the right answer? Does the Holy Spirit come in a rush of wind and with dramatic effect like in Acts? Does she come in a gasp that breaks into history in a new way like in Columbus? Or does she come in a breath? A subtle turn of the head as music plays in the background?

Paul says yes. In his letter to the church in Corinth he says, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” Sometimes the Spirit blows in a violent wind and sometimes in a gentle breath. But always, and in all ways, the Spirit blows. Amen.
February 17, 2008
Lent 2A
John 3:1-17

In the name of God. Amen.

Everything that I need to know about baptism, I learned from Hurricane Andrew.

It was August 1992. I was living with my parents in Lafayette, Louisiana. I was a freshman in High School. The news reports told us of a ferocious wind that had blown through southern Florida just a few days before. Now they told us that the same wind was blowing toward us. But they didn’t need to tell us. Though it had not yet begun, we could already feel its imminence. The blue sky, striped with broadly swirling bands of white clouds, was growing overcast. The cottony white clouds began to shift to yellow. Stillness hung heavy in the air. The same way that you can feel snow just before it falls, you could feel this wind even before it began to blow.

As night fell the water and the wind came. Water fell in sheets and pooled and puddled in whatever recesses it could find – in rivers, in ditches, in driveways, in living rooms. It slapped angrily against our windows begging to go where it was driven. The wind howled as it twisted across the earth – slow and steady moans through the night, ripping trees bare, hurling debris, reclaiming its place on the cityscape that we had erected in its path.

There was no sleep that night. Only anxious laughter and occasional games meant to distract us from the tempest that engulfed us. And hour after hour of listening to water and wind.

When morning broke, the howling wind became a stiff breeze and the sheets of rain retreated into gentle showers. By that afternoon the wind and the water had parted to reveal clean blue skies and a bright sun that shone its light on the destruction of the night that had passed. It looked like death. Trees had been toppled. Streets were littered with branches and pieces of people’s homes and lives. Death rode in on wind and water.

About a month later I was riding with my mother in a car across the Atchafalaya Basin – the large expanse of swampland between Lafayette and Baton Rouge in Louisiana. The hurricane that had brushed us with such destruction in Lafayette had hit our swamp with its full force. I almost dreaded what I expected to be the flattened landscape as we approached the eighteen-mile bridge that would carry us to the other side. Instead, as we crossed, I began to notice something that surprised me. I had never seen the vegetation so dense. It glowed with the green of new life.

Later I would learn that swamps need hurricanes to remain healthy. They need, periodically, to be washed and stripped down to make room for new life – new life that is always waiting in the shadows for an opportunity to break through. They need the water and the wind so that they can be born anew in the aftermath of the storm.

In the gospel lesson this morning, Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night. There is a tempest swirling in his soul. You see, he was a Pharisee – a holy man in his community who was set apart for special adherence to and knowledge of Jewish law. He was respected by his peers and by the citizens of his country for his unique relationship with the tradition. But secretly, he felt conflicted because he could see evidence of God in Jesus, and it did not reconcile with what he thought he knew about God. In what must have been exasperation, he confronted Jesus with that incongruity. He said, “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus, in his way, replies with a most curious answer. He says, “No one can see the realm of God without being born anew.”

This isn’t the image of Jesus that we tend to expect – we expect Jesus to be one who calms the storms of our lives to ensure our safe passage. This Jesus takes what is already disturbed in Nicodemus and makes his life more complicated still!

Do you ever feel that way? You’re a good and faithful Christian. Here you are at church on a Sunday morning, after all. Do you ever wonder why you aren’t rewarded with clarity? With peace? Do you ever wonder if the choking thicket in your own soul has room for the new creation that God is said to have planned?

Jesus goes on to say, “No one can enter the realm of God without being born of water and Wind. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of Wind is Wind…. ‘[You have already been born of water. Now,] you must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of Wind.”

One of the functions of Lent in the life of the Christian community is that it gives us an opportunity to face the tempests that swirl about in our lives. Too often we work to silence the Wind. In Lent we are called to let it blow.

Nicodemus probably felt that Jesus was fueling the tempest that he wished to quiet. But really, Jesus was just giving him permission to let the Winds of confusion blow.

We don’t know much of what became of Nicodemus after this interaction with Jesus. But we do know that somehow the Winds that led him to Jesus on that night left him different – there was something within his soul that was stripped down. Something new began to grow.

This isn’t the story of a man who was so radically moved by Jesus that everything he knew shifted in an instant. Nicodemus was not raised from the dead. He was not made to walk after a lifetime of paralysis. Like most of us, he was simply stirred. And in that stirring-up, something in him began to shift.

The solemnity of Lent can easily be mistaken for the somberness of a funeral – of a quiet vigil kept with those who mourn the dead. But we aren’t solemn because of death. We are solemn in anticipation of new life.

Lent is a time of regeneration. It’s a time when our introspection invites the blowing wind of the Spirit into our souls to strip away our old overgrown-ness that has been choking us. It’s a time to wash in the waters of our baptism so that they might nourish new life in us yet again.

Like Nicodemus who felt tortured by the tempest in his soul, we are invited to embrace the tempests in our own souls in the presence of Christ, that we may be made new by that water and wind.

Hurricanes don’t just destroy trees. They plant them. Waters don’t just flood and drown. They wash and nourish.

As you face your own tempests this Lent – or whenever you face them – try living into them. Let your soul stir a little. Maybe even look for ways to stir it up from time to time. It can be frightening when we see those storms rising. Our inclination is almost always to work really hard at keeping them quiet. But remember that tempestuousness and anxiety are never the final word from God. Even in the face of death God is speaking life. Like a swamp regenerating after a late summer storm, Easter always rises out of the Good Fridays of our lives. Like Nicodemus, our own tempestuous souls can be slowly churned into new growth through Christ. Amen.
January 6, 2008
The Epiphany A
Matthew 2:1-12

O God: lead us, who know you now by faith, to your presence. Amen.

My roommate has been on a bit of a Pirates of the Caribbean jag here lately. Between me and you, I think it may secretly be a Johnny Depp jag and not a Pirates of the Caribbean jag – she’s also seen Sweeny Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory lately… But around our house, it’s been the three Pirates of the Caribbean movies over and over. A couple of times this week I’ve had opportunities to sit down with my friend to watch these movies with her. I’d never seen them before.

To be honest, I didn’t really think I’d enjoy them, but I’ve been surprised to find how much I have. There’s plenty of action, the stories are at least entertaining… But surprisingly, the aspect that I’ve found most captivating is the beautiful, poetic, and often ironic symbolism in almost every scene. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp’s character), is the pirate on whom the series centers. He’s a true pirate, with all of the negative baggage that such a designation implies; but, he’s not without his own endearing qualities. Sure he’s chronically dirty and unconcerned by customs of propriety… But he’s also playful, clever, and even somewhat lovable in a goofy sort of way.

As I was watching these movies with my roommate – a way of preparing myself for this Feast of the Epiphany – I was fascinated to learn of Captain Jack’s compass. Every sailor carries a compass, even the villainous pirates. But Jack’s compass was different. It didn’t point north. Occasionally it would fall into the hands of people who didn’t understand the point of a compass that doesn’t point north. They would assume it was broken and toss it aside. But Jack would always keep its secrets to himself. His compass wasn’t intended to point north. Instead, it pointed to that which is most desired by the one who holds it.

We should all be so lucky! Imagine if you had a device to direct you at all times to where you most wanted to be! I’d bet we’d all be at least a little surprised about where we would end up.

I wonder if the wise men of today’s gospel lesson were at all surprised about where they had ended up. When we think of them, we sing “We Three Kings”, but more than likely the stories about the Magi refer to a sect of Persian astrologers. They believed that their interpretations of the stars announced the birth of a new king of the Jews. Though they were not Jewish, they set out in search of this king to pay him homage. They headed west – the direction of the Jews. It’s natural that they would have tried Jerusalem first. If you’re in the first century and looking for a king of the Jews, Jerusalem is a good place to start. It was the seat of political and religious power for ancient Israel. But when they got there, they must have been surprised. They didn’t find the baby for whom their predictions had said that they were searching. Instead, they found a city filled with people who knew nothing of their news.

We’ve all had moments like that in our own lives – moments when we realized that our journey didn’t take us where we had expected to go. We had followed all of the signs that we could see to the best of our abilities, and yet… We still didn’t end up where we thought we would be.

Perhaps a relationship ended up less “happily ever after” than we had initially dreamed that it might. Perhaps added responsibilities at work seem less worth the additional money than we had initially expected.

But those unexpected detours don’t have to lead to disappointment. For Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean the unexpected detours that he found in route to his heart’s desire led to unimaginable adventures. For the Magi, their unexpected adventures led to a king unlike any that they could have imagined.

When have your detours, or maybe even roadblocks, led you to unexpected reward?

Last year, I had the great opportunity to travel to Jerusalem during Holy Week and Easter. I was there to study Orthodox liturgies of the season as a student of St. George’s College, a ministry of the Episcopal Church of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Or at least that’s what I thought I was there for. One day, we traveled together as a class to visit Bethlehem. The drive from the college in East Jerusalem to Bethlehem took a little over an hour. But as we were driving, our professor reminded us that Bethlehem was only six miles away.

We had all heard about the “security fence” that was being erected between Israel and Palestine, but few of us had considered the logistical and psychological impact that such a structure would have on the people it was meant to exclude. As we approached this “fence” we could see that it wasn’t really a fence at all – it was a 25-foot tall concrete wall. Upon completion it is expected to reach 403 miles long, making it more than four times as long and more than twice the average height of what was the Berlin Wall in Germany. It snakes through the countryside of Palestine, often separating individuals from their families or jobs and communities from their sources of fresh water.

When we reached Bethlehem, we found a depressed community. The wall that now encloses it has already choked the little town’s fragile economy. Most of the stores and restaurants are closed and the once-bustling streets are now almost empty. Dependent on the money spent by Christian pilgrims in their journeys to the Church of the Nativity, the town has withered in the wake of a wall that is little more than an inconvenience to pilgrims who now have to drive 40 miles and sit through an Israeli checkpoint if they are to visit. Too many decide that it’s simply not worth the trouble.

Seeing that wall was an epiphany for me. I had traveled those thousands of miles to Jerusalem in the hope of experiencing Easter in the land of Jesus. To my surprise, however, I also found Christ in a new way. As I witnessed the suffering of the poor and the excluded, I was moved with compassion. I had been taught to fear Arabic people and particularly Palestinians. But when I met them, and talked with them, and saw how they lived, I could see their humanity.

The miracle of the Incarnation is not just that Jesus was God, but that Jesus was human. Whenever we allow ourselves to be open to the human-ness of another we come closer to encountering Christ.

I found Christ in the face of a woman selling trinkets at the base of a giant wall that now separates her from her former livelihood.

I found Christ in myself as I allowed myself to be moved with compassion for the suffering of unknown and unheard outcasts.

When have your detours led you to Christ?

We are in the season of epiphanies. If you allow yourself to really consider the incarnation of God among us, you will undoubtedly be surprised by the ways that you encounter Christ.

Wise men traveled to Jerusalem in search of a king. To their surprise, they ended up in Bethlehem, overwhelmed with joy at the sight of Jesus.

Be open to the detours and surprises that lie ahead of you. You may find them to be epiphanies of Christ. Amen.
December 25, 2007
Christmas
John 1:1-18

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

It would be difficult to find a more nostalgic day in the year than Christmas. Earlier this week I was reading an essay about the importance of Christmas to the essay’s author. What intrigued me about this essay, however, was not just that Christmas was important to this author, but that Christmas was important to this Jewish author. He spoke for a while about how he didn’t really believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but that he did believe that Jesus was an important historical figure, and that he should be revered for the usually positive influence that he’s had on millions of people throughout the world for centuries. Eventually, however, he admitted that perhaps the only reason that Christmas was really important to him was because it was celebrated so warmly in his home when he was growing up. He considered that perhaps his parents feared that he would feel left out as the only Jewish child in his neighborhood for not getting Christmas, so they instituted their own Jewish celebration of the Christian holiday – complete with tree and presents. Santa even came to visit. Somewhere along the line, the pattern of celebrating Christmas became natural for him, and he continues it now as an adult. A faithful Jewish adult, but one who celebrates Christmas.

I suppose that’s what Christmas is for many of us. It’s a time when we live out the rituals of our culture. For many people, part of that cultural ritual is attending church. It has less to do with what we believe, and more to do with what we do. We engage in these rituals as a way of holding on to what feels most comfortable for us. We do what we did in the past simply because it is what we did in the past. By continuing in the rituals of our childhood, we find ourselves feeling safe and secure and stable.

A parishioner pulled me aside recently and asked, “Why is there so much conflict around. It seems that I see it everywhere I go.” Through the course of the conversation I learned that she wasn’t just talking about conflict in church. She talked about finding conflict all around her community – in the organizations in which she participates, in stores as people anxiously stand in line, in her workplace. As she broadened her scope, she saw conflict all around the world. Between The Episcopal Church and other churches of the Anglican Communion, between disparate religious groups, within and between political parties, between nations and between ethnic groups and factions within nations. She felt overwhelmed by what seems like our pandemic inability to respect one another despite disagreements.

I agreed with her. It seems that there is fighting and strife and disagreement everywhere in the world. I wonder if that might be because, in this age of instant communication, we are finding it more and more difficult to feel secure in the world. Everywhere we look – newspapers, television, the internet – words swirl around reminding us of the instability of the world. These words tell about war and terrorism and natural disasters at every turn. It seems harder and harder to find that safety and security and stability that we felt as simple children, finding rewards from Santa and loving parents under the tree on Christmas mornings. In such an insecure world, it’s very easy to begin to lash out at one another. It’s easy to pin blame on our brothers and sisters when the words that we hear keep telling us that our world is falling apart around us.

I think that’s at least part of why the world feels a little more peaceful at Christmas. As we lose ourselves in the familiar traditions of the season, the world seems to make a little more sense. We hear once again the comforting words that remind us of simpler times. We remember and reenact those traditions from the safety and security of our childhoods – a time when the world at least seemed simpler – and we fool ourselves into believing that life really was easier.

It really is odd that we should retreat to such sanctuaries of familiarity at Christmas. Though store windows and popular holiday music would have us forget it, the fact remains that Christmas is about remembering the birth of Jesus. Not just a baby, but God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, walking among us as a person.

The gospel says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” One of my favorite writers of theology, Marjorie Suchocki, said this in another way, “The ultimate Word of God is not a paragraph, but a person.”

That’s the real irony of Christmas, particularly as it relates to our popular culture. God made God’s Word a baby. Not anything particularly special. A baby dependent on his parents. A baby born to average parents in less than average surroundings. A baby born in a town that never really amounted to much. He was just this little baby, but he would grow to show us in new ways that God can live even in us. It’s an extraordinary event. We remember it these two thousand years later not because it was a model of safety, security, or stability – the birth, life, and death of Jesus were anything but safe, stable, and secure – but we remember it because it was so very new. God had been acting in the lives of people throughout history, but in the moment of Christmas, God began acting in our lives in a new way. God did an entirely new thing, and it’s worth celebrating.

Too often we are terrified of change. We fear that change means that our world is unstable. We fear that change might mean that we will lose our footing in an unstable world. We fear that change will descend into chaos. Even if it does, we forget that chaos is the soil out of which God’s creation grows. That’s certainly what the religious and political establishments in the time of Jesus feared. They feared that the changes that he proposed – the new ways of relating to God – would destabilize their society and their own positions of public trust and power. They were so afraid of him that they tried to cut him down. Then, in the midst of what must have seemed to his followers like utter chaos, God sowed a new creation – new life for Christ. New life so profound that it could not be contained in Christ. It spilled out into all the rest of creation.

That’s what we celebrate in Christmas. There was a new life that looked unremarkable. It was just a baby. But it wasn’t just a baby. It was the Word of God made flesh. And through the new life of that child, the new life of resurrection could be born.

The word of the world was then and is now death and disaster, distance and anonymity. But the Word of God is relationship. Love. Life.

Merry Christmas.

Enjoy the rest of this day as a time to surrender to those cultural rituals that await us. Retreat into the warm embrace of their familiarity. I know I will. But as that feeling fades and as the cold winter ahead moves in around us, remember that the Word of God is stronger than whatever words the world may offer. Insecurity and instability are not the final word. When those words surround you, look for the Word of God. It lives. Amen.
December 23, 2007
Advent 4A
Matthew 1:18-25

In the name of the one God. Amen.

“Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” These words seem like rather humble beginnings when considered against the profundity of the story that they prepare to unfold. They seem a little too “matter of fact”. If you stop, and listen closely, you can almost hear Matthew saying these words with the slightest hint of a yawn in his voice – like one almost bored.

In some ways that seems a bit strange, but I don’t know. Maybe I can see where he’s coming from. There comes a point in each of the advents of our lives, when the preparation and the planning begin to tire us. We spend days or weeks or even longer anticipating some future event, and then, in the long stretch just before we arrive, our only thought often is to just let it come. Let the preparations end and let the hoped-for event finally arrive.

Have you ever been in a moment like that in your own life? Perhaps you were preparing for a big trip. For months you have waded through the tedium of preparations. You’ve purchased your plane tickets. You’ve updated your passport. You’ve secured the necessary visas. You’ve made arrangements for lodging, taken time off from work. Toward the end you even reach the point where you’ve packed your bags, called a car to take you to the airport, put the dog in a kennel… You’ve attended to practically every detail when you find that only one detail remains: to wait until it’s time.

I’ve been hearing about Christmas in this parish since sometime around my first day on the job back in July. I don’t know it to be a true, but I suspect that the preparations had begun even before that. Meetings have been held, color schemes have been discussed and decided, and teams have been formed to coordinate the various aspects of decorating. More recently, silver has been polished, fresh flowers and greenery have been ordered and delivered, and this afternoon the church will erupt in a flurry of activity as it all falls in to place. But for now we have one last thing to do: wait until it’s time.

I think that must be how the writer of this gospel felt as those words were penned: “Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” If you were to look back at the seventeen verses that precede what we read this morning, you might see what I mean. In those opening verses of Matthew’s gospel, we are told the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph – centuries compacted into bullet points. In terms of the qualities of engaging literature, it’s very nearly the most boring seventeen verses in the Bible. Sure, a few interesting names pop up – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; David and Solomon; even Joseph and Mary – but we hear almost nothing of what made them so great. The names are simply read off like a to-do list almost done.

But even in the midst of this boring recital that opens Matthew’s gospel, something important is conveyed. We hear about the centuries of preparation that lead us to the moment at hand. Those familiar names remind us of the stories of the ancestors of our faith. They remind us of the countless ways that God has been active in our story. We hear the name Abraham, but in hearing it we are reminded of Sarah, and we remember the story of God giving them the gift of a child even when they feared that it was no longer possible. We hear the name Jacob, but in hearing it we recall the trials of his son Joseph, which eventually led him and his family to Egypt, where Moses would be born and where he would be lifted up as a leader among the Hebrew people. We hear the name David, but in it we recall the story of his sin with Bathsheba and his betrayal of his friend Uriah. Even through all these tales of despair, abandonment, and betrayal, we hear the constant refrain – God is in the midst of even this.

Now, at what is almost the end of the centuries that formed that first Advent, Matthew says, “Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way…” We can almost begin to hear the cattle lowing, when there’s one last pause – a breath before the story as we expect it can really begin. One last opportunity to see that God is active among us before we meet that God in the face of Jesus.

Joseph has just learned that the woman who is to be his wife is to have a child. Moreover he knows that the child is not his. Imagine the pain he must have felt. Like his ancestors before him he must have been consumed with the despair of Abraham, the abandonment of Joseph, and the betrayal of Uriah. His heart must have been aching. He clearly loved Mary. In his anger he could have cast her aside in a public way. It would have led her to a life of disgrace. It would have been his right to do just that – to try to make her pain and embarrassment match his own. But his love for her must have been more profound than whatever anger or betrayal he may have been feeling. He must have known that whatever pain he thrust on her wouldn’t relieve his pain. Instead it would make him feel worse. No, the easiest thing for him to do would be to allow her to step aside when no one was looking. Perhaps then they could both move beyond their mistakes and their embarrassment and begin to find some semblance of a way forward. Yes. That’s what he would do. He would just try to get through it as quickly as possible.

But like we’ve heard in the stories of his ancestors, Joseph’s pain was not the end of his story. He would see – just as Abraham, and Jacob, and David would come to see – that God was working in his life. Even in the midst of what seemed like the deepest pain that he could possibly experience, he would find God. He would find hope. He would find a way forward that he had never before imagined as possible.

“Now the birth of Jesus, the Messiah, took place in this way… An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”

God has been working in the midst of us. Even in times of pain and despair, even when we could see no way forward, God was there – making a path.

God is coming.

Even now, in the long nights of advent – whatever that advent may be for you – when perhaps there is no end in sight, when a bright new morning seems never to dawn, and we can see no clear way ahead, God is here, working among us, and making a path. God is coming.

It’s not Christmas yet. But there is just enough time left for one more breath. One more chance to look around and find the ways that God is already here. There’s a new day coming, but it’s not here yet. And there’s one last thing to do before it comes… wait.
November 11, 2007
24 Pentecost, Proper 27C
Luke 20:27-38

In the Name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

“POP!”… Could’ve had a V8.

I’d bet you all know the commercial I’m talking about. A young man, probably in his 40s, dressed in a conservative, black business suit, is sitting in a nice looking restaurant, at a round table. He’s talking with other clean-cut, well-dressed, professional looking men. The waiter comes by, points to the man’s plate and says, “You still working on that?” The man politely says “No.” The waiter then removes it and notices a large, untouched pile of broccoli on this otherwise empty plate. With not a word, and only the slightest roll of his eyes, the waiter reaches over to the man and – “POP” – he pops him on the forehead producing a sound strangely similar to the sound made by the breaking of the vacuum seal of a V8 bottle when it’s opened for the first time. As the waiter turns from the now-confused patron we hear a voiceover reminding us, “Could’ve had a V8.”

It’s a good commercial. Not only is it simple, fairly entertaining, and informative, but like all good advertising, and for that matter like all good teaching and even preaching, it meets us where we are. It connects with us on a level that we can all understand and relate to. I mean, I suppose it’s not likely that you’ve ever been enjoying a meal in a restaurant when you were inexplicably assaulted by the wait staff, but we have all had those moments in our lives when we were going along, not even paying attention to what we were doing, when seemingly out of nowhere some flash of realization hits us – a moment of clarity – like a pop on the forehead.

I often have those flashes of new sight when I take the time to hush those busy and anxious thoughts that are usually swirling about in my mind. When I surround myself with quiet and allow myself to become still my mind will usually follow along; and, through that stillness I can sometimes see the busy-ness that tends to swirl about me with new, calm understanding.

It also happens when I listen to music – particularly music that I know well. It’s not uncommon for me to listen to something that I’ve heard hundreds of times before when suddenly some lyric or musical phrase will stand out for me as if I had never heard it before. I’ll hear something new amidst the old and wonder how I could have looked past it before.

This is what happens in today’s Gospel lesson – Jesus, like the waiter in the V8 commercial, smacks the heads of the Sadducees into a new way of seeing what was always in front of them. They were trying to trip him up by proposing a riddle that would challenge his teachings about resurrection. They said, “There were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be?” But Jesus could see beyond their words. He recognized that they weren’t asking about marriage customs or laws as the façade of their words might have suggested. Instead, they were speaking out of their deep fear that the new way of thinking that Jesus proposed would upset the thin grip that they tried to hold on their understanding of reality. The worldview of the Sadducees insisted that life ended at death. Jesus threatened to upset that worldview and it scared the Sadducees to death – and not life after death, just death.

But why were the Sadducees so afraid of Jesus’ ideas? For most of us, the idea of life after death breeds comfort, not contempt!

Sure, it’s true that most of us take comfort in the idea of resurrection; but, isn’t it also true that there can be a part of each of us that can be tempted by the idea of the finality of the physical realm? At first glance, you might disagree, but look closer. Life can be challenging. Every day we struggle to ensure our security. In that struggle we face countless obstacles – jobs, mortgages, raising children, passing tests, caring for ailing parents, difficult bosses, difficult clients, difficult spouses, and the ever-difficult New Jersey driver. The list could go on all day. In the face of this onslaught of obstacles, it can begin to seem that our only defense is logic. If that driver would just follow the rules… If my boss or client or spouse would just listen to reason… Finite problems demand finite solutions. Right?

When people and things die we see them no more, so they must be no more. Right? Jesus said no. “POP!” Your question about death, and husbands, and ownership isn’t even the right question. That’s not what resurrection is about. Resurrection is about life, just as God is about life. Moses spoke of the One that he met at the bush as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So God is God not of the dead, but of the living! To God, all of those saints that we name are living!

It’s a departure from logic. Truth often is. Last week we called out the names of those dear ones who have preceded us in death. To the casual observer it might have seemed that we were engaging in that prayerful ritual because they had died. But all of us who offered names know that’s not true. The truth is, we did that out of our profound gratefulness that they live on in our hearts and even in some aspects of ourselves. It may not be exactly logical, but it is true.

We are people of resurrection. We practice it in all of our saint’s day’s liturgies, and each week we stand in solidarity with the saints of the ages in saying “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” But even so that twinge of doubt lingers. In each of us there can be that little Sadducee inside who would rather have clarity and logic even if it means we must bind God into too small of a box for the sake of our own simple understandings – even if it means we must sacrifice truth. In so many of the anxious moments of our lives we will find that our anxiety is borne out of dissonances between our understandings of what is logical and what underlies as truth. Think about it. What makes you anxious? What makes you angry? What makes you afraid? Perhaps your anxiety, anger, and fear are healthy responses to the situations that you face – sometimes they are – but sometimes they are signs that our faith has been misplaced. For the Sadducees, their faith was misplaced in the limits of the world that they could see. When I’m anxious, angry, and afraid I usually find that the same is true for me – I’ve somehow grown too faithful in my own limited perspective. And I usually don’t even notice it until I slow down and make space for God to pop me in the forehead with some new clarity that I wouldn’t allow myself to see before.

How will you be open to the new perspectives that God longs to show you? What effect might that have on the anxiety, anger, and fear that swirls about in your head?
Sunday, July 29, 2007
9th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12C
Luke 11:1-13

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living. Amen.

“He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We’ve heard these words before, but I’d bet they slipped by, unnoticed. Listen again. “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Those words were spoken in the first verse of the Gospel lesson on my first Sunday here just a few weeks ago. They are simple words, and if we are not careful we could easily overlook them.
If Luke’s Gospel were an opera these words would likely be written as recitative – while arias drive the plot and develop the characters, recitatives connect these larger elements to give the work form and smooth transitions. It’s not likely that you’ll ever hum the tune of a recitative. That’s not what they were intended for. But they do serve an important purpose in their own way.

When we heard on July first that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” you might not have noticed, but, in our cycle of readings, we were entering a long section of the story of Jesus’ life – Act IV of Luke’s opera of Jesus’ life – where we are told of Jesus’ “Journey to Jerusalem”. We’ve heard the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth. We know that there was a period of preparation for his ministry when he was baptized and when he spent forty days in the desert. In June we heard stories of Jesus’ first experiences of hands-on ministry in Galilee. During that ministry he teaches in synagogues and heals the sick and casts out demons from the possessed. And now, in this fourth act, Jesus begins the long and often difficult journey to that which he is called. With each step he approaches his destiny.

If Luke’s gospel were an opera, however, it would not be like most other operas or plays or novels with which we are familiar. In this, the first week since its release, the news media has been clamoring to cover the popular excitement about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I’ve heard countless stories of adults and children who’ve read the book in a single sitting. Sales have shattered previous records. And every story, article, or review begins with a solemn promise not to reveal any secrets of the plot, and especially the ending! But Luke was not writing for that kind of audience.

Theophilus, the wealthy and powerful man to whom this document was originally addressed, knew at least a general outline of the life story of Jesus. Luke asserts that he is writing so that Theophilus “may know the truth concerning those things in which he had been instructed.” And like Luke’s original audience, we, too, know the story of Jesus. We’ve had centuries of tradition to teach it to us. We know what it means for Jesus to “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Like Theophilus, we know what he faced there. We know about the exuberant joy of Palm Sunday. We know about his last supper with his friends. We know that one of his friends would betray him in greed and frustration while another would betray him out of ignorant fear – betrayals that would lead to agonizing suffering and even death on the cross.

Though the transition was subtle, it gently points us to the dissonances that lie ahead before this score can land on its final resolution.

I have been enchanted by these simple words for the past four weeks because they speak to me so plainly as a parallel to the journey that we, of St. Peter’s Church, are experiencing. On July first, we, too, embarked on a journey – a journey that will lead us, like Jesus, into the next phase of our destiny.

But the journey that we face is not just a trip. Jesus was not merely traveling to Jerusalem; he was journeying to his destiny. Similarly, we are not merely entering a process that will culminate in our calling a new Rector; instead, we are embarking on a journey of self-discovery and discernment that we fervently pray will reveal the one who God is already calling to lead our parish into the next generation of its ministry in this place.

In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, ten chapters – nearly half of the book – are devoted to the telling of this journey. In our cycle of Sunday readings, this journey began on July first; and, we will continue to follow it until All Saints Sunday on November fourth. Bob, our Interim Rector, has already advised us that we should expect the journey that we face to take no less than two years. A trip can happen in an episode, but a journey requires an epic.

So a journey can be a daunting prospect. We live in a “microwave culture”. We eat pre-prepared fast food, we drive too fast in express lanes on expressways, we look for direct flights that will drop us at our destinations as quickly as possible… While all of that may help us to reach the “end”, we often find that it has failed to help us reach the “goal”. Daunting, though it may be, we must resist the temptation to make our work over the next two years a “trip”. God is calling us on a journey.

So where do we go from here? If the concept of “journey” is so countercultural, how do we answer the call to enter into one?
June 24, 2007
Luke 8:26-39
Proper 7C

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

I bet I know what you’re thinking.

Here you are, dutifully sitting in church on a beautiful Sunday morning. It’s sunny outside; it’s not too hot today. You’ve had a busy week and maybe it would have been really nice to sleep in. It could have been a great day to skip church to play golf or to go spend time in a park with the kids. But no, you didn’t do that. You set your alarm, you got dressed, most of you probably drove in (despite the big ditch between Madison Avenue and the parking lot!) and here you are. Perhaps you resisted the temptation to enjoy the near-perfect weather this morning because you were feeling empty in some way and were hoping to get a word of encouragement that might help to feed you in the week ahead. You’ve just heard [Lauren, or Tom, or Lind] read the Gospel, I walked into the pulpit and now, instead of feeling washed in the comfort and encouragement of the Gospel all you can think to yourself is, “Who, then, is this?”

Admit it. That’s what a lot of y’all are thinking right now.

I know! I find myself thinking the same thing! And if our reading this morning had joined Luke just a few verses earlier, we would have heard the disciples saying those same words that so many of us find ourselves saying this morning. “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” (Luke 8:25b)

Just before the story that we read this morning, Luke tells us the story of Jesus and the disciples encountering stormy seas. The disciples were afraid, so they woke Jesus who came and calmed the storm. Luke tells us that after he did this the disciples were amazed and wondered among themselves who he was that he could be capable of such power over even the forces of nature.

And then, as if causing a raging storm to quiet were not enough to convince us that Jesus is at the very least, someone special, Luke moves immediately into the story of Jesus casting demons out of the Gerasene man. He shows us that Jesus’ power extends beyond even the natural world that he inhabited – he can even control the spiritual world, too!

The tormented man comes to Jesus, and his demons, speaking through him, beg that they not be tormented. Luke, in his usual subtle way of making his point, has the demons address Jesus as “Son of the Most High God.” Just three verses after the disciples asked, “Who then is this?” they encounter demons that give them their answer.

It would be easy to try to preach on this text by way of teasing the disciples for not knowing exactly who they were dealing with in Jesus. I’ve heard that sermon before from time to time related to several texts. Usually it’s in some form of derision against Peter for forgetting that Jesus is the “Son of the Most High God” or an attack on Thomas for needing to actually see the risen Christ before he can believe.

Yes, it would be easy to preach such a sermon today, but it wouldn’t exactly be fair. We do, after all, have more of the story than those first century disciples had when they were following Jesus through the countryside. We know how the story of Jesus unfolds. We know of his death and Resurrection. Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of his Ascension and just after that, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We know the story so well that we’ve developed a calendar around how to celebrate it! So it wouldn’t be fair to tease the disciples for not recognizing what may seem so obvious to us; and it certainly wouldn’t do much to justify waking up early on Sunday morning.

So, the central question that Luke proposes remains: “Who then is this?” Sure, in some ways he gives us the answer: he is “Jesus, Son of the Most High God”. But there must be more to Jesus, as much as to any one of us, than a simple name and title.

Imagine if someone were hearing of you for the first time. How would you (or your friends on your behalf) convey something of who you really are? Of course we’d begin with things like name and title: I’m Jon. I’m one of your seminarians. So great! You know my name and you know that there are at least some people in this church who have decided to affirm my desire to explore a vocation as a priest; but does that really tell you everything that you’d need to know to really know me? So I’d probably offer a little more about myself. I’m a recent graduate of the Theological School at Drew University where I earned the Master of Divinity. Next week I start a job as Director of Youth and Family Ministries at St. Peter’s, Morristown. Okay, so I do stuff. Who doesn’t? By this point you’d probably be wondering what it is that makes me unique. Perhaps I’d tell you that I’m from Louisiana – that I moved here three years ago to study at Drew and that I found that I loved living in New Jersey and didn’t want to leave. I suppose there are people who’ve never been here, who might argue that loving New Jersey makes me somewhat unique… But clearly they don’t know what they’re talking about! So then, I might also tell you about how I grew up. I’d tell you that my father is a United Methodist minister, and that I was, like him a Methodist until I joined Grace Church about two and a half years ago. I’d tell you about my deep love for this parish – for the sense of community that I’ve found as I’ve worked with the Altar Guild and through getting to know that faithful band of 7AM church goers on Thursday mornings. I’d tell you about the relationships that I formed with my colleagues in the Inquirers class two years ago – relationships that are still an important part of my experience when I’m able to be here on Sunday mornings. If you still wanted to know more I’d tell you how grateful I am for the deeply loving mentoring that I continue to receive from our Rector, Lauren; and, how all of these experiences have joined together to contribute significantly to my profound love for our Episcopal Church and our Anglican traditions. I’d tell you about how much it pains me to see the political struggles that our church is facing as we debate issues related to biblical authority and human sexuality in very public arenas; but I would balance that by telling you how proud I am of so many of the leaders of our church who, like the writer of this morning’s Gospel, remain deeply committed to Jesus’ message of justice through the love of God for all people. And when you asked me if I thought there would be a schism in The Episcopal Church (that’s always the next question when I talk to people about my love for our church), I would remind you that people often respond with fear when they are confronted by the profundity of Jesus’ love. Like the Gerasenes who, out of fear, asked Jesus to leave when he had saved a man from the demons inside him, there may indeed be Anglicans and even other Episcopalians who ask us to leave when we continue to insist that the love of God be extended to everyone. And like the example we have in Jesus, I would insist that we must not let that dissuade us from our commitment to the ministry God has entrusted in us.

Perhaps if we got to the end of that conversation you’d know a little more about who I am. But would you know enough to really know me? What would it take for you to really know me?

What would it take for me to really know you?

Luke knew that a relationship with the risen Christ could not be achieved just by sharing the name and title of that man who was “Jesus, Son of the Most High God”. He wrote his book, you’ll recall, for Theophilus, a wealthy man, presumably a new Christian, who wanted to know more about Jesus. Luke knew that Theophilus needed to know more than that Jesus was the “Son of the Most High God”. Like the facts and stories that would be told about me or you if someone wanted to know us, Luke tells us the stories of Jesus that can help us find the answer to that persistent question: “Who then is this [Christ]?”

But these stories are always only the beginning. If we were to really get to know one another, it might begin with stories and facts, but it would only be truly achieved through our dedicated attempts to spend time with one another and to learn one another’s ways.

That’s why we’re here today. That’s why we’re sitting inside when the weather outside is so perfect. That’s why we braved the Madison Avenue construction. That’s why we’ve put off our golf games and our time in the parks with the kids until the afternoon. We are here because a central element of our Christian vocation is our ongoing discernment of that question posed by the disciples: “Who then is this?” We are here because we believe that when we gather in the name of God we will, by the power of the Holy Spirit, encounter the Body of Christ; and because we know that it is only through those encounters that we can come closer to knowing Christ in the intimate way that our faith requires.

Who then is this Jesus?

Who then is this Christ?

I’m afraid I don’t really know. At least not the way that I want to know.

But I do know that I come closer to the answer each time we gather around the table. So I keep coming back to find out more about this “Son of the Most High God”. I find out more and more through the stories that I hear and through the time that we share. Amen.
March 11, 2007
Luke 13:1-9
Lent 3C

In the name of God. Amen.

Well, my friends, it seems that today we have stumbled across one of the oldest precedents of the church: if something isn’t working the way we had hoped, we just spread some manure on it and wait to see what happens. All too often, the only thing that happens is that it just comes out stinking worse than before we tried to fix it.

Yes, this one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of ours has a long-standing tradition of spreading quite a lot of manure. In every major social revolution, the church – at least in part – has been standing front and center ready to spread the same old… stuff.

For example, when white slave owners up to the nineteenth century finally decided that their African-descended slaves were at least human enough to have earned baptism, the training that those enslaved members of the Body of Christ received in church was all too often carefully calculated in such a way that it would be limited to things like narrow interpretations of Pauline threats for “slaves to obey their masters”.

And while it’s true, many of the strongest leaders of the American Civil Rights movement of the 1960s were first nurtured in churches, we only need to look around ourselves in most of our churches today to see that many churches are still lagging pretty far behind in the struggle for equal rights. It’s one thing to argue for desegregation in public schools; but the vast majority of our churches still practice a kind of segregation in their worshiping communities that is unparalleled in almost any other aspect of American culture.

And when the rest of this country was beginning to awaken to the reality that women just might be as capable as men in making decisions and as such should be eligible to vote: to participate in that kind of American civic baptism; most of the church remained steadfast for decades longer and refused to allow the voices of women, much less the liturgical presidency of women, within the institutions of the church.

And now, in what is perhaps the most ravenous debate facing the Anglican Communion today, while much of the so-called secular society is beginning to recognize the necessity of extending equal (or at least more like equal) rights to gay and lesbian people, most of the church continues to hold fast to its belief that gay and lesbian people are less than worthy of receiving and responding to their experiences of the love of the risen Christ. Churches still just keep shoveling the same old manure. And this time, the manure continues to look strikingly similar to the kinds of manure that have been shoveled for centuries on women and on people of African descent: gay and lesbian people too often are not allowed to preside at Christian assemblies and the churches that gather these assemblies too often refuse to bless and to proclaim as holy the love shared between two gay or lesbian people.

But, while manure may seem pretty easy for most of us to sniff out in the social movements of the Church, there are other times when it can be more challenging to distinguish between what is the same old manure and what may be the fertilizer that can yield new fruit.

All too often, in our mission projects and outreach ministries, we find that the only thing with which the church has been reaching out is a shovel full of the same old manure. It can be entirely too tempting for us, from the perspective of our fortunate place in this global society, to decide what is needed to alleviate the challenges faced by those others among us who are less fortunate. The problem is, our deciding that we have all of the answers doesn’t make it true. Our efforts at mission are most effective when we take the time to learn from those who need our help, exactly what help it is that they need.

In The Episcopal Church, and particularly in the Diocese of Newark, and even more particularly in this parish, we hope to recognize this truth and are striving to keep our ministries from being shovels full of the same old, ineffective stuff. Across the General Church, our parishioners have been hearing about and are being moved to action by our triennial mission focus on the Millennium Development Goals. With these goals, (you can read about them in our regular weekly inserts) we, as a church, are attempting to eradicate world hunger, poverty, and treatable and preventable diseases, and we are attempting to bring women and people in developing nations out of their marginality through the focused and efficient funding of programs that are proven to be effective in meeting real needs.

In this Diocese, through the leadership initiated by the Sisters of Convent St. John Baptist in Mendham, many of our parishes have adopted a global mission focus that has been yielding profound new fruit for a particular orphanage established by Sr. Jane in Bamenda, Cameroon. The orphanage she established for children with AIDS and for children orphaned by the AIDS pandemic now houses, feeds, educates, and provides clothing for some 40 children. The funds are being raised almost entirely by churches in this diocese to help Sr. Jane reach her goal of building an on-site school, healthcare, and housing facility for more than 400 other children. This may seem like an insignificant difference when viewed in the context of the now 12 million AIDS orphans that are living on the continent of Africa, but I assure you that the work of our diocese is very significant to each of those 400 children who will be cared for when this facility is complete. Furthermore, I can assure you that the significance of our influence will continue to be felt concentrically as each of those children moves out into the world as healthy, stable, and educated members of their society. The scope of this potential influence is almost unfathomable.

And even here, in our own parish, we are attempting to reevaluate our own mission focus in such a way that it will bear new fruit and not contribute to the spread of manure that can be so tempting for the people of the church. Through the Random Acts of Kindness grants it is now possible for you, the members of this parish, to identify opportunities for mission in your own neighborhoods and around the world, and to actually bring about some tangible measure of change. It is because of these grants and through other generous contributions of time, materials, and money that this parish will embark on an exciting mission trip this summer to Belize. The projects that are completed on that trip will have a profound impact on the lives of the people in the communities of Belize; but, perhaps even more significantly, it will cause the people of this congregation to see the world in a broader way. Our broader thinking will make the world seem smaller and we, as a community, will be more open to recognizing that the needs of any member of the Body of Christ are our own needs.

As we step into our futures, we, the people of the Church, will continue to be the ones most often asked to shovel manure. And when we are asked to do so, we must humbly and prayerfully consider: will we just continue to shovel the same old stuff? Or will we, like the gardener in this parable, decide to take a little time, dig deeper and offer new food in the promise of new growth?

We are trying to dig deeper and in many ways we are succeeding. But it is not yet time for us to rest on our laurels. There is deeper tilling to be done and if we engage ourselves in this work as Jesus, in this parable, is calling us to do, it will often be difficult and tiring work. But the fruit that we will yield will be sweet and will feed us in ways that we could not have imagined.
In my mind, this is largely what the season of Lent is about. As we, through these forty days, prepare ourselves to imagine anew what life with the risen Christ is all about, our charge is to slow down and to take stock of our lives. It is not just about giving up coffee or chocolate or beer. Those things are just symbols that help us to remember that this season of fasting is a time for us to identify those places in our lives where we are fruitless or where we are merely shoveling manure; and to hold them against those places where we should be digging deeper and offering food in the hope of new growth.

God is calling us out of our patterns of solitary fasting and into new life in Christ. God is calling us into closer and closer relationships with one another. Look around this room – this holy place where the people of God gather to worship – the faces that you see are the Body of Christ in this world. And then, when you leave this place and step back into the rest of the world, continue to look for the Body of Christ beyond these doors. Remember each day that our responsibility in answering God’s call is not limited to what we do here in this space or at this appointed time. Our time here is just a chance for us to stop and be fed before getting on with the work of the Gospel.

When you are here, you should know that through God’s mercy you are welcome, and as a welcome member of the Body of Christ, you should take the time to be fed. But then get on with your business. And when you are out in the world doing the work God is calling you to do, be cautious when you begin to feel compelled to interrupt God’s mission for the sake of spreading manure. The temptation is real, but you may begin to recognize that those are very often the moments when you can be most fruitful. So when temptation strikes, try to dig deeper and to offer spiritual food. With God’s help and a little time, you just might begin to find new fruit growing where there had been none.

Thanks be to God. Amen.
December 3, 2006
Advent 1C
Luke 21:25-36

In the name of God: who was, who is, and who is to come. Amen.

What time is it? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. Undoubtedly some of you are thinking, “It’s time for a nine-minute sermon.” Some churches choose to tell time by placing a large, easy-to-read clock in the back of the nave as a polite reminder for the preacher to be succinct. The ways that we use time in our times of worship can tell us quite a lot about who we think we are. My father was preaching a few weeks ago in the little Methodist church in East Tennessee where he and my mother attend. A couple of days later he and I were talking about his sermon and he said, “I didn’t preach long… About 25 minutes.” Incredulously I informed him that in our church I’ve been told to aim for about ten minutes. He paused, and then reflected: “I suppose that’s long enough for a good sermon… It’s probably too long for a bad one.” I suppose he’s right.

But, we spend so much time in our lives worrying about time. What time is it? When is our anniversary? When is your birthday? When will the check come? When is the bill due? What time do I pick up the kids from football or band or even church? Act now! While supplies last! One day only! Back for a limited time! It’s 10:00; do you know where your children are?

From “Once upon a time” to “Happily ever after” we consume and are consumed by time.
I’ve always had a strange sense of time. When I refer to something that happened “the other day”, I could just as easily mean “earlier today” as “four years ago”. I blame much of that on my mother. When I was growing up, I would sit with her many evenings and watch recorded episodes of “Days of Our Lives”. In that fantastic world a six year old child would go away to summer camp and return one month later as an 18 year old. Then that same young man would spend a month on the night of his senior prom or two weeks in the three hours before his wedding. So for me, time has always seemed less like a “time-marches-on” constant line through history than it has seemed to be like a kind of breathing: expanding and contracting, quickening and slowing in response to its environment. Sometimes moments feel less like points on a linear progression and more like loops looking back and taking in before moving on. But as these loops and twists become more complex from day to day, it can make us begin to wonder if our “Once upon a time” will ever yield to the promise of the “Happily ever after”.

We, in the church, can have some peculiar patterns of time-telling, too. Look around. Thankfully we are not one of those churches that have chosen to display a giant clock in the back of the church; but, we do employ subtler means of communicating what time we think it is. The cross that hangs bare above the altar is a reminder that we live in the time of the resurrection. Marjorie Suchocki, one of my favorite writers in the field of theology, says, “Resurrection depends upon the reality of God, not simply as that which God can do but as that which God is.” So in saying what time we think it is, we are saying something about who and what we think God is. God is the God of Resurrection and new life. This Baptismal Font that found its new home in the center of our community just a few weeks ago is a way of reminding us that it’s time to act on the covenant that we’ve made and renewed throughout our lives. This reminds us who we think we are: we are people of the covenant that keeps us in community with God and with each other. And if you’ve been here in the past few weeks, you’re likely to notice that the banners and hangings around the church have changed for today. As beautifully as we celebrate the season of Creation in this church, there is something comforting and hope-filled about moving into this new year through deliberate preparation in Advent. The changes in our banners and colors tell us that it is time to make that transition.

But the lessons seem to be telling us another story. Everyone knows that December is the time for us to begin to prepare for Christmas. Why are we hearing this story proclaiming the second coming of Christ? Aren’t we supposed to be gearing up for the first coming? Did we make some horrible mistake and read the wrong text this morning? We must have. We can’t be preparing for Jesus’ birth when he’s already starring in the stories that we read. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, this is actually Jesus’ last parable in Luke’s gospel. Chronologically, Jesus would be heading for Palm Sunday and Holy Week in just a few days. We’ve obviously made a mistake.

Or did we?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time this week. Mostly how there is not enough of it. While most of us are just beginning to ease in to the most hectic time of the year in the holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that your seminarian is boldly forging ahead of you. As I move in to the last days of this second-to-last semester of my time in seminary, it strikes me how much shorter the weeks seem to be now than they seemed to be at the beginning of the semester. And while these weeks and days grow shorter, my work for the semester in school is coming due. Even if you’re not in school, I’m sure you can relate. At the end of this month we’ll mark the end of the calendar year. For many people that means the end of the time to make your sales or productivity goals. It will mean the last days to make charitable contributions to count on this year’s tax returns. School plays and concerts, Christmas pageants, caroling, holiday parties, secret Santa’s… The list grows longer and the time grows shorter with every passing breath.

As my own anxiety about my lack of time came to a head earlier this week I was in the midst of a little Advent of my own. My brother is here visiting from Mississippi this weekend, so in addition to all of my usual school and church work I spent much of this week planning and preparing for his arrival. There was so much to do in advance of his arrival if I were to ensure that I would have time to enjoy his visit. Around Tuesday, my anxiety around what I had perceived as a lack of time was on the cusp of developing into full-fledged panic. When I was talking with Barbara Conroy before Evening Prayer on Tuesday night, and telling her about my brother’s visit, she must have sensed my anxiety because her first thought was that I must be upset that my brother is visiting. Nothing could have been further from the truth! But as my anxiety increased it began to spill over into this area that should have been the source one of my greatest joys – the Advent of my time with my brother. At that moment, I knew that I had to change my perspective. Rather than being consumed by anxiety over a lack of time, I needed to slow down and be deliberate if I were going to effectively manage my time. As long as my thinking remained fixated solely on the future, I had no space to remember the past and its many contributions to a future worth planning.

I wonder if this might be some of the wisdom of examining a broader picture of Jesus’ life in our discipline of preparing our hearts for a new and deeper awareness of God in our midst. The Gospel According to Luke was probably the last one to be written of the three synoptic gospels, including Matthew and Mark; but, it was still early enough that those first Christians remained expectant from moment to moment of Christ’s return. They were just beginning to learn what this new way of living with God among us might mean. Perhaps, living in a new faith under an oppressive Roman regime without the sympathy of their larger Jewish community, they had not yet had an opportunity to reflect on the magnitude of all that they had experienced. Perhaps this was a part of the reason that they needed to tell their stories and to write. They needed an outlet to process their past in the context of their new hope for the future.

Where we go wrong in our head-first dive into the busy-ness of this holiday season is very often rooted in the fact that we fail to stop and take seriously the business of remembering. We forget to remember what time it is. We forget that we live in the time of the resurrection and new life. We forget that it’s time to live out our baptismal covenant. We forget that it’s time to remember. It’s a hard thing to do. People, deadlines, and events will still clamor for snippets, and even chunks, of our time in the coming weeks. Tempers will shorten in a direct function to the length of the Christmas shopping lines we encounter. Anticipation will grow, and if we’re not careful, it may ferment into anxiety. But it doesn’t have to. Learn from the mistakes of your seminarian. Try to keep perspective. Try to discern what your actions say about what time you think it is. Is it time to panic? I doubt it. Is it time to remember our source of hope? Perhaps. But, how will we do that?

Amen.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Mark 10:35-45
Pentecost 20, Proper 24
October 22, 2006

In the name of God: Creative, Word, and Wisdom. Amen.

Well, I hope y’all were listening closely this morning. That’s right, this gospel is one of those passages that you won’t be hearing very often in this church. And even though an almost exact copy of this lesson appears in Matthew’s gospel and an abbreviated version appears in Luke’s gospel, the church, in its wisdom, has seen it fit only to share this story with us once in our three year cycle of readings. Sure, you could hear it every year if you attended a celebration of the Feast of St. James the Apostle – but how many of us go out of our way to celebrate that festal day each year? [Don’t worry, I won’t ask for a show of hands.]

But whenever we encounter these rare texts, a part of me can’t help but wonder why we seem to be avoiding certain stories. Are we hiding from something? Obviously the gospel writers and those early church leaders who assembled our canon of scripture must have felt that the story was important enough that it should be included in some version in three of the four gospel accounts that found their way into our final collection. But why don’t we follow their lead and incorporate this lesson more fully into our spiritual practices of reading and reflecting?

I’ll admit that there is something a bit unsettling about this text for me, and I could see how it might be equally unsettling for the leaders of the church. It seems very natural for us to seek attention and favor from those whom we love and respect just the way James and John did. A little nepotism never really hurt anyone, did it?

Honestly, who among us would not be pleased if we learned that a coworker, who just happens to be a good friend, was promoted to a position of authority over us? The frustrations of the work day would likely be eased if the boss regularly had dinner with you and your family, or joined you for Happy Hour every Friday. In the political realm, it’s a common practice for our elected officials to thank their most devout supporters by offering some sort of favor associated with the power of their office. In my home state of Louisiana we’ve developed a system of political kickbacks and favors into a “good ole boy” network that seems almost artful in its design; and, I’ve been hearing over the past few years that New Jersey can be a close rival for those kinds of structures.

And even in the church we can occasionally find ourselves guilty of these kinds of problems. Over the past few months, as our church has been in the process of choosing new leadership at both national and diocesan levels, I have occasionally heard people supporting this candidate or that for no other reason than because they have a “close” relationship with so-and-so. The subtext seems to be something like, “This bishop will make my job easier because we had sushi last week.” You can almost imagine backroom conversations where someone says, “Gee Rev. Joey, I think you’d make a great bishop and I’m gonna tell all my friends about you…. Don’t you think I’d be a good Canon to the Ordinary??”

So perhaps it’s just a little easier for the church if we turn a blind eye to those stories that make us look a little too much like those powerful religious leaders in the Temple that Jesus is always fussing about.

And it’s not just in the world, and certainly not just in the church that people hope to earn the favor of the powerful. Even, on a deeper level, in our own lives, we often find ourselves seeking a kind of God who will step in to carry out the plans that we’ve already made. We often do this with the best of intentions. When our loved ones are dying and we plead for just a little more time. When we feel genuinely called to our vocations and we pray that God will make the people who make decisions about our futures recognize those things which seem so obvious to us. Even when we don’t come to God with a clear path in mind, there can seem to be, in the core of our existence, a proclivity among us to wish for a God who will just automatically fix whatever bothers us. We’ve all done it. You see those familiar red and blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror and say, “Oh God, I hope he’s not coming for me.” You’re being grilled by a boss or a client for some mistake you’ve made and you pray that God will somehow give you an answer to solve the problem. And even in those deeper moments of woe: when our hearts are unsettled because of instability in our relationships, when we feel lonely or alone, when we grieve the sufferings of those whom we love; we often pray that God will just push some button in heaven and make everything okay.

I think most of us know, at least intellectually, that God doesn’t tend to work that way. But it can be very tempting to fall into that kind of wishful thinking.

But before we judge James and John (or even ourselves) too harshly, let’s think about this. I mean really, didn’t Jesus bring this on himself? During his ministry he was always running around doing pretty big favors for people. If he wasn’t helping blind people to see he was helping lame people walk. Once, when he was at a wedding and they ran out of wine, he just took some water and made some more. Just this week at Evening Prayer one of the Daily Office Lectionary readings was the story of Jesus healing a twelve year old girl whom everyone thought was dead. Jesus only allowed a few people to witness this, and among that few were James and John. They had seen him do some pretty amazing things for other people who really had no significant qualifications beyond proximity and faith. They both had proximity and faith; shouldn’t they get a little kickback like the others? They weren’t asking for anything too big – just a position as second in command to this Messiah whom they thought would be the ruler of the world. Is that really so much to ask between friends? [It puts a whole new spin on that whole “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” theology, doesn’t it?]

But what James and John failed to recognize was that Jesus had at least ten other friends who might be put out by their desire to move to the top of the ladder. Mark says, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” In their desire for a higher place than the rest, James and John had subverted the real ministry of God moving among us – the deeper ministry of drawing us, all of humanity, into a closer relationship with God the Creative, God the Word, and God the Wisdom. If Jesus had merely granted their wish like a genie in a lamp, the presumed hierarchical division between God and humanity would have been made more severe, not less.

You may have heard about the latest saga of the “Days of our lives in the Anglican Communion”. It has been proposed that an effective response to our disputes over human sexuality might be to develop a “two-tiered structure” in which churches who are willing to sign a neo-orthodox statement of faith and vow of practice would be allowed to continue making decisions for the whole communion; and, those of us who try to live into the gospel and our baptismal covenant in a more progressive way would be relegated to a lesser position where we would still be allowed to scream for justice from the sidelines, but we wouldn’t be allowed into any of the real decision making processes. It occurred to me, as I’ve been studying and reflecting on the Gospel lesson for this week, that the Anglican Communion is not the first to consider developing a “two-tiered structure”. James and John, right from the beginning of this Christian communion, in their very real and human way, were hoping to be prominent leaders in the reign of God. They were asking for their friend, Jesus, to push some button that would ensure their status as members of his inner circle. Jesus knew that such aspirations were contrary to the aim of God – that all of creation was called to be in the inner circle with both God, in all of our understandings of God, and with each other.

Perhaps there is a need to reevaluate our understanding of Communion in the Anglican world. Perhaps we, in the West, need to learn a lesson from our brothers and sisters in the so-called “Global South” – a lesson exemplified in the gospel lesson today by the other disciples’ anger with James and John in their desire to be first and best – a lesson about holding our colleagues in ministry accountable for their actions. In reality there has always been a kind of “two-tiered” structure in human communities and for the past several centuries it has been us in the West at the top tier and everyone else in the world on the bottom. The churches of the “Global South” are right to be angry about that injustice, but they are wrong to try to correct it with new injustices. We have a duty to the ministry of reconciliation as established by Christ and affirmed in our baptismal covenant to call out, through the lens of our own failures in history, for a new day of justice and equality on earth.

I believe that if we listen to the ways that God is calling us into deeper unity with Godself, we will recognize that the truest understanding of communion with God is best expressed through the ways that we live into communion with each other, our partners in creation.

This is a hard lesson to hear. We all want to be the best and most favored. But Jesus tells us time and time again, that our understandings of greatness are skewed. We become great when we allow ourselves to be called into service. We live into our relationship with God most fully when we live into our relationships with each other. Our best expressions of love for God are in those most genuine, often even painful expressions of love for each other. The central feature of our relationship with God is less about who is in and who is out, and more a recognition that in God, through Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit all are in – none more and none less than any other. Even me. Even you. Even those troublesome bosses and clients and coworkers; and yes, even those Anglicans who wish we weren’t. All are in. Thanks be to God. Amen.

We'll begin with some ancient work. Though I am admittedly very much a novice preacher, these are some of the earliest. Be kind! And pray that I grow!!

Sunday, April 23, 2006
Second Sunday of Easter
John 20:19-31

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

Since before my first day in this church, one of my greatest points of anxiety about our ministry together has been about preaching. When Elizabeth and I sat down together for the first time to begin to imagine with one another what my time here would look like I uttered an audible gasp when she mentioned “preaching.” I blame much of that anxiety on my father, because as a child I remember him often quoting Carlisle Marney when he said, “It takes great audacity to stand up and claim to speak for God.” Indeed, this peculiar task of “preaching” is no small undertaking for a person of faith. A faithful person must walk softly when approaching the business of “God-talk”. But if I have learned anything in these months with you, I have learned that if preaching isn’t honest it isn’t worth doing, and it sure isn’t worth your having to sit there and listen to it.

Therein lies the problem. If I were to be completely honest in this sermon, you might learn that I identify with Thomas a little too easily for anyone’s comfort. I might have to publicly face the fact that the idea of the resurrection is at least a little hard for me to swallow. Now, before you judge me, it’s only fair that I justify this by saying that I’m a product of this logical, empirical, and scientific age. I was raised in a world of premises and conclusions, the scientific method, and cable television documentaries neatly explaining, with pictures and computer animations, everything from the mating habits of toxic tree frogs to the miracles of Jesus. It’s only fair that I would look skeptically at this tradition that claims to laugh in the face of the finitude of death because it stands in contrast to everything that logical reasoning would say. And I’d be willing to bet that I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Indulge me for a moment while we examine the evidence: last week we had the big party to celebrate Easter. In case you need a reminder here’s a brief synopsis: we had a packed house, we had candles on everything that would sit still, we had special music, special guests, and special flowers; we rang bells, we sang triumphant songs, and we used all of our finest silver. We really put on quite a show. We pulled out all of the stops and tried to celebrate as genuinely as we know how our belief that our God triumphed over death and that Christ is risen. It was fun.

But here we are this week, gathered in the place of last week’s celebration, yet again. It’s a bit odd. We are still celebrating the risen Christ, but the tone this week is undeniably different. You have probably noticed that there are a few less candles and a few less flowers and not quite as many cars in the parking lot. [You may have even noticed that there is even a little more room this week to spread out in the pews.] I would propose that this is at least partly because this is the week when our shock at the resurrection begins its retreat and instead we are forced to consider what it means to live in a world where our view of the Hope of Christ has changed so suddenly. Sure, for one Sunday it’s really easy to go with the flow and enjoy the party, but sooner or later we must face the reality that Easter is a big deal! It’s a lot to get our minds around, and for many people it’s just easier to try not to think about it.

But for all of us, who are back for the after-party, hear this good news: our church, in its wisdom, has recognized that while the Easter moment itself is quite profound, its implications in our lives are even more profound. As such the church has given us this great gift of not just one Easter Sunday, but an entire season of Sundays to begin to make sense of this Christ in our midst. We are not left to wander in our musings with no direction! For each of the next several weeks we will learn in new ways the implications of living in the new community of this Word made flesh that continues to dwell among us.

As I’ve read through today’s prayers and lessons a few words and ideas continue to reach out and grab my attention. Reconciliation. Fellowship. Unity. The Collect speaks of the Easter experience as “establishing the new covenant of reconciliation”. The first lesson tells of these people, who in the wake of Jesus, formed a community around his life where together they “were of one heart and soul.” The Psalm exclaims, “Oh, how good and pleasant it is when [people] live together in unity!” In the Epistle, St. John reminds us, “If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another….” And even in the gospel, though the message is slightly more subtle, we continue to hear echoes of Christ calling us into community.

When I first learned that I would be scheduled to preach today I quickly read through the gospel lesson and said to myself, “Oh, that’s the ‘doubting Thomas’ story, it’s a familiar one so I should be able to find something to say about that pretty easily.” So I filed it away in my mind and brought it back out occasionally to stew over while waiting for trains or classes or whatever…. But I found myself continuing to get stumped by that last beatitude – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” In the spirit of honesty, I could not bring myself to join what is undoubtedly a large chorus of other preachers this Sunday who say that while shaking their fingers as if to say, “You better believe even if it doesn’t make sense, because that’s how you’ll earn God’s blessing!” That is the kind of reading of this story that has led many churches to demand blind, unthinking faith from their parishioners. Furthermore, I would argue that the fact that people tend to expect those kinds of demands from the church is a big part of why you find yourself with so much extra space to spread out in the pews this morning. We know that this Easter stuff is a lot to get our minds around, and I think we really want to think about it; but, too often the Church is afraid to give us that chance – too often the Church is afraid that our analytical and reasoning minds will simply give up on the mystery of this moment and cast aside the living Christ because it doesn’t make sense. But when I started to think about this story in the context of all of our other readings for today, it began to occur to me: this oft-interpreted finger wagging call for faith might not be the only possible point to this story.

Recently I heard someone comment that it was hard for her to move past Good Friday and into Easter. I can certainly understand that. Very often in our lives it is our pain that seems most real, not the hope of the resurrection. And when we are in such places it is easier and more natural for many people to retreat from their communities – because perhaps the only thing worse than suffering is suffering on display. So very often, when we are hurting and grieving, we pull away from the very ones who would try to help lift us up out of our despair. I can’t help but imagine that this may have been what some of the disciples – what some of Jesus’ closest friends – were feeling. But the grieving Thomas, though still wincing at the pain of his lost friend, eventually came back to be with the others. And it was not until he was in community that he could experience the risen Christ. This is the reconciling power of Christ: that even when our communities are broken and scattered Christ draws us together, and all along the way as our community becomes more and more whole we see new glimpses of the risen Christ in our midst.

Recently the Episcopal Church has been the subject of many newspaper, internet, and magazine articles. The internationally-proclaimed “Chicken Little” cry for a few years has been “The Communion is fracturing!” In their efforts to snuff the schism-lust of conservatives both in the Global South and at home our Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies appointed a Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to propose responses to the last General Convention that would be aimed at “maintaining the highest degree of communion possible.” Finally, after meeting for more than a year, the Special Commission published their report just before Easter. In it, they suggest that all who are involved in electing, consenting to, and consecrating new bishops should “exercise very considerable caution” when considering candidates “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church”. When I hear this language I cannot help wondering whether we are being too easily seduced by the threats of a few conservative leaders. Of course our communion with one another is very important, but are we giving up too easily on the power of the risen Christ to draw us together?

At that first Easter, Christ appeared to most of the disciples, but Thomas missed it. Even so, as Bishop Spong reminds us in his book, The Easter Moment, “Thomas never abandoned the community of faith even when he was the only unconvinced member….” Moreover it is important to recognize also that the community of faith never abandoned Thomas, even though he was the only unconvinced member.

Though I’m a seminarian and I’m supposed to act like I know everything, I won’t try that today. I’m not going to propose some fool-proof plan for keeping the Communion together, or for getting past the grief of the Good Fridays in our lives, or even for making sense of that troublesome beatitude from earlier. Instead, I’ll just share with you the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. He says, “In the end, when asked what was the most important thing for people to do, Jesus did not say that it was for them to be ‘right’. He said it was for them to love. [And] love is not about being ‘right’. It is about being in relationship.”

So I invite you to stick around for this next season of Sundays. Come and be a part of this community just as we are a part of the larger community of Christians – yes, even the Anglican ones. Come and grow with us as we struggle together to find new meaning in this illogical concept of a risen Christ. And come and celebrate the Word made flesh that continues to dwell among us in these communities that we form in his name.