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

Monday, May 25, 2009


Dear Friends,

Something unexpected happened in this sermon.

I had done my work in advance of preaching. I had the text written. Then, on Sunday morning, I woke up a 3 a.m. and threw it all out. I deleted the file that I had worked on, and decided to start over.

It just didn't feel honest. I didn't feel comfortable getting up in front of a congregation and saying the things that I had planned to say.

I don't remember exactly what was in the original sermon. I just knew it wasn't honest.

So, by the time church started, I entered the pulpit with about a page and a quarter of handwritten notes about the kinds of things I thought I might like to say.

By the time it was all done, I didn't remember what I had said, I just knew that I stood by whatever it was more than if I had said whatever had been on paper before.

Thank God my parish has a recording system!

I've listened to the recording, and converted it to a transcript for those who might prefer to have the sermon that way. But I'm also experimenting with putting up the audio of the sermon. It seems particularly appropriate this time, since it truly lived as a spoken word before being printed.

It was a terrifying experience. There are certainly thoughts I would have liked to develop more, or subtle word changes that I would have preferred, but all in all, I thought it came out okay. I hope that, if there are others of you out there who have had similar experiences, you will help me to reflect on this experience through your comments and emails.

It reminds me of my friend Katherine Hancock Ragsdale. I've heard it said that she advises preachers to put aside their prepared manuscripts and to attempt to preach "from a prepared heart". Though this was not a conscious attempt at taking Katherine's advice, I think that's what I accidentally did.

Like I said - it was terrifying. But I hope to turn this into an experience from which I can learn.


24 May 2009
Easter 7B
John 17:6-19
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
(transcript from audio)

Assist us mercifully, O Lord, that, among all the changes and chances of this mortal life, we may ever be defended by your gracious and ready help. Amen.

We are entering, what I think it would be fair to call, the Pinocchio days of Easter.

You know the story: Pinocchio was this puppet. He was a puppet that was so dearly loved by his creator and his master that this creator and master prayerfully wished with all of his heart that Pinocchio might become a real boy.

If you know the story of Pinocchio, then you know that pretty much the whole story takes place in the course of his transition from puppet to boy. There’s a little bit of story before the transition, and there’s a little bit of story after the transition; but the real meat of the matter happens in the midst of the transition.

Like Pinocchio, we, too, are held in transition. In the calendar of the church year we are in the post-Resurrection days and the post-Ascension days; but we’re still just short of Pentecost.

We’re still hanging in the balance of that transition.

Jesus isn’t with us – at least not like he was before. The Holy Spirit is not yet with us – at least not like she will be.

Transition can be a scary place – especially when you have to live in it for a little while. It’s the process of passing from the known to the unknown. It can also be a very exciting place. A process of passing from the known to the expected.

I’d like to briefly tell you a little story about one transition in my life.

A few years ago – before I had seriously begun entering this process moving towards ordained ministry – I was in the midst of a lot of transition. A friend of mine, recognizing this transition in my life, wanted to help me through it. She wanted to be a kind of guide for me in the midst of it. So she sent me on a retreat to the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s an Episcopal monastery. And when this friend told me that she wanted to send me to a monastery, I thought she was crazy. I graciously agreed, but then, as I thought about it, I was thinking, “What in the world could she have in mind?”

I went during the fourth week of Advent that year. Now, it’s always cold in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fourth wee of Advent, but this was a particularly cold Advent. I moved slowly into the rhythm of the life in the monastery. I began to take in their cycles of praying and waiting and praying and waiting.

The stillness began to move through me.

Each day I developed a little routine of my own before Morning Prayer. I would get very bundled up and I would get a tall cup of coffee; and I would go outside and sit on the banks of the Charles river and I would watch the sun rise.

Between the cycles of praying and waiting and praying and waiting, I found stillness. And like a metaphor for that stillness I saw it being recreated in the river in front of me. Over the days the river slowed into frozenness. And each day I would watch the sun rise and watch the night become day. And it occurred to me that I could get to know God even in the middle of transition.

As the water was transitioning to ice- as the darkness was transitioning to light- I heard God.

This morning, the lessons that we read are also stories of transition.

In Acts, we hear that Judas has died. And Peter, taking leadership among the Christian believers, leads the people of Christ into a discernment process of their own – finding someone to fill the shoes of Judas.

I didn’t check this with the Search Committee or the Vestry, but I expect that in our own discernment process we did a little more than cast lots.

They entered themselves into prayer, and they left it to what many on the outside would have assumed was chance. They waited to see where God was leading them, and to whom God was leading them.

In the other lesson we heard this morning from the Gospel According to John, we hear of another kind of transition. Step back a few days in the story. Jesus is about to go through a transition of his own: from his earthly life among us to the life that he still shares among us.

He was about to die and the first thought that came to his mind was us. He entered into prayer and asked God to be with us and to lead us. The seventeenth chapter of John is almost like Jesus’ love song to us.

In the end, all of these stories of transition – the ones in all of our hearts and the ones that we hear today – tell us a bit more about how to bring God into our own lives. We tend to look for God in the stillness and the known and the steadfast: “Christ the same yesterday, today, and forever”. And though Christ may be the same, we are not. We are people of change. And in the midst of these changes, God is being made known to us anew each day.

As I think back to the story of Pinocchio, it occurs to me that through the course of the story Pinocchio’s master and creator becomes his father. The creator and the created emerge from the transition in a new and intimate and deeper relationship than they had previously imagined possible.

May it be so with us. May all of the changes and chances of our own lives bring us into deeper, closer, and more intimate relationships with one another and with God. Amen.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Ascension Day Anthem

"Up, up, up", indeed!

With special thanks to our friends in the theatre - where Ascension happens EVERY day!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Within the reach of your saving embrace...

10 May 2009
Easter 5B
John 15:1-8
Acts 8:26-40

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen. (BCP, 101)

That’s one of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s one of the Prayers for Mission that is suggested for Morning Prayer.

I just love that image: “you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that EVERYONE might come within the reach of your saving embrace”. I love how it takes that posture of death and agony and turns it into an expression of our hope. It is all of the emotion and expectation of Good Friday and Easter rolled into one sentence. It is the story of our faith in perhaps the most succinct summary I know.

Too often, religion – like all human institutions – is used as an instrument of division. We worry over who is in and who is out, who is behaving in a truly “Christian” way and who is not (as if any of us really knows, or has hope of meeting that mark!). We choose sides and we form alliances. We withhold ourselves to punish those who have failed us.

But it’s all in vain. These inclinations are natural, to be sure. But they fail to bring us closer to Christ – the one whose arms of love are stretched so wide as to bring us all within the reach of his saving embrace. It doesn’t matter how far or how forcefully we push others or ourselves away, we all still abide within that reach.

That was the Gospel of Radical Welcome that Philip shared with the Ethiopian eunuch that day on the road to Gaza.

This nameless Ethiopian is riding along after a pilgrimage of worship to Jerusalem. He was a pious man, doing his best to live a godly life. We are told that he was a person of some influence – he was an advisor to the queen, responsible for overseeing her treasury. He was clearly somewhat wealthy in his own right – he was riding in a chariot and not walking, as most people might have been. He was also an educated man, because as he was riding, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah.

By these accounts you would imagine this man to be at the center of his society – more than included – sought after, even. But like most of us, his story was not so simple or clear. He was a eunuch. He had been castrated, probably at an early age, in preparation for a life of service to the queen. It was common, in those days of violent patriarchy, for men of service to be physically emasculated. It was the only way that their male-oriented society could imagine a man to be subservient to a woman – he had to sacrifice his maleness.

As such, he was, at once, a leader of his society and ostracized from his society.

It’s important to remember that he was returning from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Perhaps if this encounter with Philip had happened on the way to Jerusalem, it might have been very different. But as it was, the Eunuch had just been denied full access to the Temple. According to the Levitical code, his status as a eunuch invalidated him from participation in the worship of God in the Temple.

As a pious and educated man, he must have known that going in, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t still hurt. It doesn’t mean his exclusion didn’t still have a sharp edge to it.

We imagine him reading from the prophet Isaiah, searching for some word of hope. At that lowest moment of his journey – after the expectation and adventure had given way to the reality of his own otherness – it was at that moment that the Holy Spirit sent Philip to share with him the good news about Jesus.

It would be easy to turn this in to a story about the exclusive nature of Judaism that is counteracted by the inclusive love of Christ. But that wouldn’t be entirely fair. This isn’t an anti-Jewish story because we, too, are good at dividing ourselves and attempting to push people beyond the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.

In recent years the Episcopal Church in particular has been constantly in the news because of our divisions. Who is in? Who is out? Who stays? Who goes? Who keeps the property? Who are the “true Anglicans”?

We have heard the good news about Jesus, but even so, we keep pushing one another away. To some degree all of us are like the eunuch – we are all separated; we are all “other”.

We have even learned how to use the Gospel as an instrument of that very human tendency to divide.

Many of you know that I follow closely the politics of the Episcopal Church. Every day I read the latest news and listen to the latest arguments about the current divisions in the Church. Too often someone will cite the Gospel we read this morning as just cause for cutting off one part of the body or another for the good of the whole.

“[God] removes every branch… that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruits is pruned to make it bear more fruit…. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Too often people in disagreement with one another will point to those words as justification for pushing one another away.

If we see that text as cutting off individuals or communities, then sure – I can see how that might be cause for our divisions. But what if that which is pruned or cut off is not whole individuals or communities, but those parts of ourselves that are “prone to wander” from the Body of Christ? It is not that I am cut off from Christ, the true vine, or that you are or they are. Instead, it is that we all can become unruly like the unattended branches of a vine. We all can give in to that urge to stray beyond the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.

It is those pieces of us – those pieces that forget that we are lured to Christ, our source, the one who nourishes us – it is those pieces that God wishes to cut away and throw into the fire.

This story is not about dividing the good people from the bad, or the right people from the wrong. It is about nurturing the Christ in us all and cutting back those parts of us that pull us away from our relationship with Christ.

We, like the ostracized eunuch, are drawn within the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.

We, like Philip, are called to proclaim that Good News to all who feel beyond the reach.

Because the reach is wide. Wide enough for you. Wide enough for me. Wide enough for all of the “others”.

“So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.”

Saturday, May 02, 2009

What'chu tryin'a say about Iowa?!

Here's another one :)

See I can't sleep, 'cause I'm so excited about these folks!

P.S. Their more "traditional" music is great, too! Check it out!

The Gregory Brothers and the first 100 days!

Okay... Once again, I have to express my undying love for Dr. Rachel Maddow. She always points me to the coolest stuff.

This is from tonight's show - the Gregory Brothers (one of whom is a girl - yeah, it made Rachel uncomfortable, too). They're doing this cool thing setting news reports to music. They call it, Auto Tuning the News.

And I think it just rocks.

The thing about it is, not only is it funny, relevant, and informative, it's also actually a pretty good song. I hope they get a lot more out!!!