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

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's not fair

Pentecost 14A, Proper 20

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

This is a difficult parable for many of us to hear: those who do the least are rewarded the same as those who do the most.  Particularly to our American ears - so steeped in the Protestant work ethic and the promises of meritocracy and against the dominant cultural symbol of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.  It just doesn’t seem to add up against everything that our culture teaches us.

It might be particularly troubling to hear this lesson in these days of a down economy.  Prices for nearly everything that we need to buy keep rising, but wages aren’t keeping pace.  The basic structure of this parable resonates with us: unemployment rates have remained too high for too long, so many of us understand what it’s like to be the late laborers - looking for work, perhaps even just enough to get by on, and too often without success.  And even those of us who haven’t experienced that anxiety directly know someone who has.

So why have these people in the story been compensated for work that they didn’t do?  Moreover, why did those poor laborers who had been working all day get the same as those who just worked for a bit?

It’s not fair.

And we’re not the only ones to think so.  When those workers who had given their whole day received their pay, “they grumbled against the landowner saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’”  In essence they were saying, “It’s not fair!”

And it’s not.  At least not the way we usually define “fair”.

The story we read about the Israelites’ time in the desert from the Exodus offers another perspective.

They, too, were grumbling against their leaders.  Times were hard, wandering through the desert.  Resources were scarce.  The people were afraid, and they began to wonder if being freed from Pharaoh’s bondage was really the best thing for them after all - slavery had been hard, but at least they hadn’t been starving!

God heard the people’s grumbling and said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day.”  In the evenings quail came and gave them all the meat they needed.  In the mornings, the bread for the day was scattered across the desert floor.  In this way the people of Israel were sustained.

They were sustained with enough for the day.  Not with storehouses of food, but just with enough for the day.

They couldn’t rest on a one-time gift from God that brought them through the forty years of wandering.  Each day they went out to get ‘just enough’.

In God’s economy, the defining measurement is not fairness, but enough-ness.

We often talk about God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the streets will be paved with gold, or that our pockets will be overflowing with money.  It doesn’t mean we will have resources to waste, and certainly not that we’re guaranteed to have as much as some of the people around us.  It only means that we will have enough.

Think about the Lord’s Prayer - those familiar words written on all of our hearts.  When Jesus taught us to pray, he said: ‘give us this day our daily bread’.  Not ‘give us this day our winning lottery numbers’.  Not ‘give us this day as much as our neighbor’.  And certainly not ‘give us this day what is fair’.  (The truth is, none of us want that.)

But no, it’s ‘give us this day our daily bread’.  Give us this day enough.  Help us get through today and we’ll think about tomorrow when it comes.

It’s a humble prayer.  And it’s how we were taught to interact with God.

The people who worked in the vineyard for just one hour earned enough to sustain them for the day.  So, too, did the people who had worked all day.  They didn’t get rich; they got sustained.  They got enough.

God’s grace is not bestowed on us according to how much we deserve it, but according to how grace-filled God is.

It doesn’t make sense in a capitalist system.  It doesn’t make sense to a culture that teaches and values the concept of meritocracy.  In God’s economy no one ‘pulls themselves up by their bootstraps’.

We are all sustained, not by our own merits, but by God’s grace - God’s overflowing and abundant, though never wasted grace.

It’s certainly not fair.

Thank God!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering and Forgiveness

Pentecost 13A, Proper 19

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

It feels strange to be talking about forgiveness today - on this the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 2001.

But really, that’s one of the gifts in the lectionary cycle of readings for worship.  Other churches or church leaders might sometimes be tempted to look past some of the more difficult readings, or the way certain readings interact with world events, but in our tradition that’s not possible.  We read and reflect on the text appointed for the day.

And today we’ve been given this - forgiveness.

“How many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?  Seven times?”

“No.  Seventy-seven times!”  Or some sources say, “Seventy TIMES seven times.”  (If you’re curious enough to think it through, that one comes out to 490 times for forgiveness.)

But the point isn’t the number of “times” we offer forgiveness.  Even if you take the larger number, it’s not like saying to your neighbor, “Okay, that’s one.  489 more times and we’re done!”

That’s not the point.

The point is that forgiveness is an ongoing process.  Forgiveness can’t end.  A truly forgiving heart draws from a well of love and grace that never runs dry.  When you can’t forgive anymore, that’s when it’s time to dig deeper and find a way.

Just as is so much of the Christian message, this, too, is a difficult message to hear.

In the church we know - at least intellectually - that we are charged to replicate the kind of forgiveness that has been extended to- and modeled for us.  But the problem with that is, too often we try to rush forgiveness without doing the work that true forgiveness requires.

Because we think it’s what we ought to do, we often proclaim forgiveness before it’s real.

In his book Don’t Forgive Too Soon, Dennis Linn compares the process of forgiving with the process of overcoming grief.  Just as recovery from grief can’t be rushed, we, also, can’t be rushed into forgiveness if it’s to actually mean anything.

You’ve all probably heard about the five stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance - but Linn writes about those as five stages of forgiveness.  Recognizing the close relationship between forgiveness and grief, he uses that same framework to examine how we can move beyond pro forma expressions of expected forgiveness, into genuine forgiveness that springs from a place of deeper truth.

And the truth is, if forgiveness does not come from a place of truth, it will breed resentment.

A common (though unattributed) quote in twelve-step, recovery groups says that resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.  Without forgiveness, we are destined to breed resentment in our hearts.  And it will kill us spiritually.

Even if our brother or sister might only cause offense once - even then(!) we have to forgive “seventy times seven” times.  Only then can it begin to come from a place of truth.

The fact is we do hurt one another.  We do offend the heart of God.  We exploit each other.  We are unfaithful to each other.  We fail to recognize the humanity in each other.

We are all victims, and we are all guilty.

But we must learn to forgive.

So on this, the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, we hear a call to forgiveness.

It doesn’t make sense.

It can seem all but impossible.

But we have to do it.  We have to find a way to forgive because it’s the call of Christ; and, because it’s necessary for our own spiritual health and wellness.  We have to keep finding ways to forgive, even in the face of our deepest pain; because even these ten years later the work is not yet done.

In these past ten years there has been a lot of talk about justice.  As a country, we’ve been seeking justice against the perpetrators and supporters of the horrors of that day.  We’ve taken a lot of steps - for good and for ill - at doling out justice around the world.  Too often we’ve mistaken revenge for justice.  But in the end, I believe that true justice will only come through deep forgiveness.  It’s only in a world where forgiveness is a way of life that we can ever hope to find that justice is a reality.

And forgiveness will only become a way of life when we keep practicing it.  Seventy-seven times.  Seventy times seven times.  Whenever the hurt and the anger and the fear are renewed, try to forgive again.  Not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because doing it will make things right.

How many times are we to forgive our brothers and sisters when they sin against us?

As many times as it takes.

This is part of the hard work of following Christ.  May we all gain the strength to do this that we are called to do.  Amen.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Stormy baptismal waters

Amaoge Gabriella Okere
Pentecost 8A, Proper 14
Matthew 14:22-33

**reworked from 2008 in Morristown

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

We’ve all been there. The storms of our lives blowing around us, everything feels rocky and unstable, we become afraid. We feel so isolated that even the sight of help engenders more fear. We feel so vulnerable that we run away from what shelter we do have. We withdraw from the communities that would have made our perceived solitude untrue.

This is the story of Jesus and Peter walking on water. It’s not the story of a magic trick. It’s not just some story about Jesus going out for a stroll on the lake when he happens to run into his friends. It’s a timeless parable of the human experience.

You can always count on the stories of St. Peter to be that way – to be timeless parables of the human experience. He is impulsive and fallible, but somewhere beneath all of that he is loyal and dependable. He is Peter – the rock – on him the church was built, and whether he is at his worst or his best, he is like us. And like us, even the rock can be shaken by the storms of life.

In the Gospel lesson this morning we were told that the disciples were afraid. They had been sent into the world while Jesus went up alone to pray. But while they were apart, the disciples began to feel battered by the storms around them. In their anxiety, they could not see Christ in their midst, they could only allow themselves to see more cause for fear.

The story does not begin to shift until we hear again that familiar refrain: “Do not be afraid.” So often, when we find ourselves in the explicit presence of the Holy, our first instinct is to fear. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they announced themselves with a plea to not fear. When the women discovered the empty tomb, the figure inside implored them, “Do not be afraid.”

Since it seems so often to be the case, it warrants asking: what holy moments in your life have felt like fear? Which fear-filled moments might have been holy?

Even after Jesus announced himself, Peter – the rock – the one on whom the church was built, was not convinced. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He needed proof.

It would be easy to judge Peter. It would be easy to ridicule him for needing that extra nudge. It would be easy to feel superior to him “of little faith.” But I’m afraid it wouldn’t be honest. How often are we, the church of his progeny, unconvinced when we are faced with the presence of Christ? How often are we, when battered by the winds of change, debilitated with fear? And even when we, like Peter, finally take that leap of faith to step out toward Christ, don’t we, too, often begin to sink into the mire of our own self-doubt?

Like Peter, we can be impulsive and fallible, but also like Peter, somewhere beneath that rocky exterior there is something more – something truer to which Christ is calling us to be.

Today isn’t one of the days set aside in the Prayer Book as being “particularly appropriate for baptism”, but it is a good day to be remembering our baptismal covenant. A colleague of mine often talks about ‘stormy’ or ‘polluted’ or ‘swirling’ baptismal waters.

Sure, water is an essential element in the recipe of life, and it can be cleansing and refreshing. But water can also be scary. Depending on what you’re trying to do with it, water can seem perilously unstable.

That’s important to remember on a day of baptism.

Water may seem unstable when we try to walk out across is, but Christ is calling us nonetheless. Christ is calling us walk in those places where we feel unstable and most vulnerable. Christ is calling us to walk in the covenant of our baptism, no matter how scary it might be.

After Peter stepped out of the boat, he paused to notice what he had done. His anxiety churned at his feet and he began to sink back into it. In desperation, he reached out to Jesus crying, “Lord, save me!” and he did.

It’s a timeless parable of the human experience.

When we traverse the seas of life and feel overcome by the often-stormy winds of change, Christ is there. And even when in our fear-filled and desperate search for stability, we remove ourselves from our communities and seek to find the way on our own; even then, Christ is reaching out to draw us back in. When we are at our best and when we are at our worst, Christ is there, holding us up through the storms and luring us on.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Making more

Proper 12, Pentecost 6A
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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

Too much is never enough.

It’s a strange message to be hearing in the church. Very often you hear us talking about conservation, asceticism, making do with less. Jesus is forever telling people to give more away and make do with less.

That’s the way it often is with material possessions. We focus ourselves on material needs or desires, but they never sustain us. We consume them, we draw them down, we run out. But, today, Jesus tells us about true sustenance - Kingdom of Heaven sustenance.

And the essence of that Kingdom of Heaven sustenance is that it’s about making more. It isn’t consumed or depleted, but it always makes more.

God is the ultimate renewable resource. Not just plentiful, but always renewing.

In the Anglican tradition, we endeavor to approach faith, and spirituality, and even religion through the lenses of scripture, tradition, and reason. Remember that from confirmation classes? We have the scriptures. We live in and are a part of the traditions of the church. But what of reason? That’s the creative part. That’s the Holy Spirit part. That’s where God continues to speak. There are churches and religious traditions that would like to present the world as if God’s work was done - as if the scriptures are not more than a simple book of instructions. But as Anglicans we believe that we have more: reason. We have a part to play in how God continues God’s work, and how God’s continuing work is understood.

One way we might employ that gift - reason - is through remembering the more-making nature of God. When faced with a task or a decision or a dilemma, we might ask ourselves: What will make more? What will be renewable and renewing? Where does the cup inexplicably run over? All of that is simply another way of saying: What reflects the nature of God?

Our job as a parish is to seek out what makes more. What makes more of us? What makes more for the community in which we’ve been planted for God’s service? What makes more for those who need more the most?

Sometimes it’s work: feeding the hungry, providing shelter to those most vulnerable, providing companionship to the lonely, providing education to those who are forgotten. The list of possibilities could go on and on.

But whatever kind of work it is - or even if it turns out not to be “work” at all - God’s more-making is always about relationships. God is in the business of more-making, and the way God does this is through the currency of relationship. Always.

Some churches will tell you that to be a good Christian you must love or not love certain people, that you must consume or not consume certain things, that you must associate or not associate with certain kinds of people, that you must perform or not perform certain rituals… But I tell you, what I’ve discovered about God and Christianity and what it means to live a life in union with the teachings of Jesus is on one hand simpler and on the other hand endlessly more complicated.

It’s simpler because I’ll never recite for you a list of rules that you must follow to be a part of this faith or even this community. There’s only one rule: be like God by being about making more. Resist the temptations of scarcity and focus instead on abundance. BE abundance. MAKE abundance. SHARE abundance. Be a tiny seed that grows to feed a village and shelter a flock. Be a treasure more valuable than all other possessions. Be small, but make more.

But it’s also more complicated than any list of rules might be: say these magic words… hate these other people… eat like us, walk like us, dress like us, worship like us… Those ways of living are simple - you just follow the rules. Our way takes a little more thought. Our way takes a lot more courage. It takes love and it takes faith.

Prohibitions and rules can sometimes serve a purpose. They can help us to stay safe. Sometimes they can keep us from harm. Sometimes they can help keep order. None of us would allow a child to touch a hot stove, nor would any of us want to live in a society without any laws.

But sometimes these rules and prohibitions turn out to be a little more selfish than just that. Often, when religious communities start talking about rules, they’re not looking out for you, but for themselves. Often, those rules are more about drawing lines around communities than they are about lifting up those communities - as if you could achieve security by segregation. But, of course, we all know that that never works.

But even beyond the fact that segregation never works, it’s not even relevant in God’s economy! We can try to segregate ourselves all we want, but God has already drawn all the lines that matter - God has drawn us all in. Others can shout “you’re out!” at us until they’re blue in the face, but God has already made sure we are in.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No… Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor ANYTHING ELSE IN ALL CREATION will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”


Not because we’ve done the right things, or followed the right rules, or run with the right crowd of people. We will never be separated simply because we are God’s. We are the people of God and that is all that matters. It’s all we need. That’s all it took, and that’s all it ever will take.

We have the Holy Spirit as our advocate and intercessor, not because we’re so great, but because we’re so God’s.

Nothing in ALL of creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So like the mustard seed, or the pearl, or the treasure, go make more of yourselves. That’s all God needs. Amen.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Just right

Proper 9, Pentecost 3A
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She went for a walk in the forest. Pretty soon, she came upon a house. She knocked and, when no one answered, she walked right in.

At the table in the kitchen, there were three bowls of porridge. Goldilocks was hungry. She tasted the porridge from the first bowl.

"This porridge is too hot!" she exclaimed.

So, she tasted the porridge from the second bowl.

"This porridge is too cold," she said

So, she tasted the last bowl of porridge.

"Ahhh, this porridge is just right," she said happily and she ate it all up.

After she'd eaten the three bears' breakfasts she decided she was feeling a little tired. So, she walked into the living room where she saw three chairs. Goldilocks sat in the first chair to rest her feet.

"This chair is too big!" she exclaimed.

So she sat in the second chair.

"This chair is too big, too!" she whined.

So she tried the last and smallest chair.

"Ahhh, this chair is just right," she sighed. But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces!

Goldilocks was very tired by this time, so she went upstairs to the bedroom. She lay down in the first bed, but it was too hard. Then she lay in the second bed, but it was too soft. Then she lay down in the third bed and it was just right. Goldilocks fell asleep.

As she was sleeping, the three bears came home.

"Someone's been eating my porridge," growled the Papa bear.

"Someone's been eating my porridge," said the Mama bear.

"Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up!" cried the Baby bear.

"Someone's been sitting in my chair," growled the Papa bear.

"Someone's been sitting in my chair," said the Mama bear.

"Someone's been sitting in my chair and they've broken it all to pieces," cried the Baby bear.

They decided to look around some more and when they got upstairs to the bedroom, Papa bear growled, "Someone's been sleeping in my bed,"

"Someone's been sleeping in my bed, too" said the Mama bear

"Someone's been sleeping in my bed and she's still there!" exclaimed Baby bear.

Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, "Help!" And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears. The End.
(The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears from


The story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is rather unsatisfying, isn’t it? When this story popped into my head earlier this week, I couldn’t exactly recall how it ended. I remember Papa Bear and Mama Bear and Baby Bear. I remembered the sequence of things being wrong at the extremes before settling into something “just right”. I even remembered the family of bears discovering Goldilocks at the end of the story. But I couldn’t remember what happened after that.

When I read the story, it became clear why I couldn’t remember it. It’s unremarkable. It just ends. And Goldilocks was never heard from again.

It didn’t make sense to me, so I did a little research. Sometimes these old fairy tales are watered down and sanitized for us. Previous generations had a bit more of a tolerance for violence and happy endings that weren’t necessarily happy for everyone than we do today.

But no. This fairy tale was first recorded from the oral tradition fairly recently - just in the middle of the 19th century. And though some details of the characters have been shifted over the years, the plot is essentially unchanged. I expected to find that in the original, the little girl became supper for the bears, or at the very least was enslaved in their service. Something! Instead, she just ran away, never to return.

I thought of this story as I heard the words of Jesus: “John came, neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard…” You can hear the exasperation in his voice.

Putting aside how excited I am to hear this biblical account of our “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” as a “glutton and a drunkard” - how I love the way that this flies in the face of so many popular assumptions of what it means to be “holy” - even that’s not really what today’s Gospel lesson is about.

Jesus is exasperated because the people seem never to be happy. They had the ascetic John, and his critics from within the religious elite could only complain. They had a near polar opposite in Jesus - a man, not roaming the countryside and crying out in the wilderness, but in the midst of the people, meeting them where they were, engaging in normal human hungers and desires. But even then they weren’t happy. It wasn’t “just right”.

The thing about “just right” - it’s a fairy tale. And it’s never as “just right” as it might have initially seemed. Just ask Goldilocks.

Even Jesus wasn’t “just right”. At least not the way most of the people expecting a Messiah might have imagined him to turn out. He wasn’t a king. He didn’t overturn the oppressive political rulers.

Instead he hobnobbed with tax collectors and sinners.

And he never promised to make things “just right”. Instead he said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take MY yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

If the world is pulling you down, if you’re feeling overburdened and oppressed, don’t just try to go it alone. Go with me, and you will find rest for your souls.

It’s a good word to hear on this holiday weekend. At a time when many of us have a chance to seek out the rest that our bodies need, we get to remember that we can also have rest for our souls.

It may not be “just right” - at least not as we might have imagined it. But it’s good. Amen.

Monday, June 27, 2011

You are welcome here

Proper 8, Pentecost 2A
Matthew 10:40-42

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

I’m reminded of a simple phrase that I heard over and over again a few years ago while traveling through Palestine. Whenever my colleagues and I would enter a shop or a restaurant or a home, the same few words would be said to us each time: “You are welcome here.”

It was jarring to my Western ears. I was used to “good morning” or “hello” or even sometimes “welcome”, but there was something about turning that one word - “welcome” - into a full sentence that made it seem somehow more declarative. The welcome seemed less like a perfunctory greeting and more like a real statement of fact: “You are welcome here.” Period. No questions asked.

Then the host would invariably offer us sweet and stout Arabic coffee and chairs for us to sit a while and talk. There were no “secret shoppers” in Palestine. It wasn’t enough to browse or even to buy. We were expected to build relationships. It was part of the ritual of being (or welcoming) a stranger.

The greeting might have been a quirk of language - most of the people that we met were native speakers of Arabic, not English, so maybe that jarring phrase just arose out of some translation from an Arabic greeting. But part of me wondered if it wasn’t just language.

There’s an ancient history in the Middle East of providing hospitality to the stranger. As those trade routes linking the East and the West grew out of the deserts few would have survived were it not for the hospitality of strangers. Travelers could not depend on a spray of Holiday Inns and Super 8s across the region. When they needed hospitality, they knocked on doors. And it was widely understood that if someone knocked on your door, you opened it and helped your guest however you could - because you might be a traveler someday yourself.

To be a stranger is to be, at least in part, vulnerable: out of place, not in the know. We’ve all been there at one time or another. Whether it’s a first day at school, or moving to a new town, or a new job, or even a new church, we’ve all felt what it’s like to stand on the outside of a community looking in. It takes nerves of steel and it always involves risk.

What would it be like if every time we found ourselves as strangers, we were received as welcome guests? Not just with perfunctory “hellos” but with genuine words of welcome then married with actions to demonstrate that the welcome was real.

That’s why I think the welcome I received from Palestinians was not just a quirk of language. They weren’t just saying words translated into English. They were translating the practices of their culture to those of us who were vulnerable strangers. They were translating not just their words, but also their welcome to those of us who were most foreign.

It’s been said that Christ came, not to make us better Christians, but to make us better humans. I learned a bit about how to be a better human from these mostly Muslim shopkeepers and hosts - all of a race that our culture has taught us to fear. We were about as foreign from one another as any could have been, but together we found humanity.

What would it be like if we - the church - made that kind of welcome our policy? What would it be like if, instead of perfunctory greetings, we offered people opportunities to build relationships?

Too often the church is so concerned with self-preservation that it can’t imagine, much less offer, real welcome. Too often churches’ welcomes come with strings attached. ‘You’re welcome if you come from the right background.’ ‘You’re welcome if you bring the right connections or gifts.’ ‘You’re welcome if you’re just like us, or at least willing to become just like us.’

Too often we welcome people so we can try to change them, but that’s not the gospel. We welcome people not to change them, but out of our hope that they will change us.

All people bring gifts. All people come pre-endowed with God’s love and support. It’s not our job to mold them into people who are worthy of God’s love, because they already have it. No questions asked.

It’s our job to welcome them, not just with our words, but with our actions: to fold them into the community of Christ; to build relationships; to let them change a bit of who we are; to meet their vulnerability with a bit of our own.

The Palestinians I met changed me. I think, perhaps, I changed them, too. We learned from each other about our cultures and we dispelled the myths that had been taught to us.

Those kinds of communities - the ones that spring up between strangers - are the only things that ever do change us. My culture had taught me that they were the incarnation of evil and enemy, but real incarnation had shown me that they were friends. Real incarnation had shown me that they were good.

It’s important that God came to us as Christ. God came as a human being, humbly born - a vulnerable stranger seeking welcome.

And that’s how God always comes.

It’s in those moments of incarnation that we find God; and, it’s in welcoming the strangers among us that we find real moments of incarnation.

The world teaches us to build walls and find divisions and draw lines. But God has drawn all of us in. God has shown our divisions to be illusory. God has laid down our walls so that we might use them as bridges.

God has welcomed us.

Now we are called to welcome God. Amen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

God: where, when, and who we least expect

Trinity Sunday A
Matthew 28:16-20

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

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Matthew’s account of the Gospel of Jesus, these were his last words to that small and scrappy band of followers. In some ways, they were like us. They weren’t rich. They weren’t influential in the political spheres of their time. But they were a group of people who believed, even in the face of adversity.

Today is Trinity Sunday. A day set aside in celebration of a doctrine. There’s a degree to which it’s kind of hard to get excited about Trinity Sunday.

It’s not like Christmas, with the gifts. Or Easter, with spending time with family. It’s not even as easy to wrap our minds around as last week was - Pentecost.

We spend a lot of time talking about the three persons of the Trinity: God, the creator of all that is; Christ, God’s incarnation; and, the Holy Spirit, God among us. But most of us are more comfortable in the persons - as individual concepts - than in the doctrine of the three in one.

You might even wonder why the doctrine matters. Who cares if there’s a Trinity?

It’s a fair question.

And I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I have the answer. I don’t really know why you should care about the Trinity.

But the reality is, God, in general, can be a tough concept to wrap our minds around. There are some who say that the Trinity is a tough concept, but in reality, I think it’s more of a means to understanding the complexity of God - not something to be overcome on one’s path to knowing God.

Where I grew up, people tended to have pretty narrow images of who and what God was - usually an old white man with a beard. But as much as that image of God never really resonated with me, the bigger problem for me was not God’s demographic position, but that the people of my community seemed to have very firm understandings of how they thought God thought.

Perhaps not surprisingly, God almost always thought like them. More explicitly: God loved the people they loved. God hated the people they hated. God had their same prejudices and theological perspectives. God even agreed with them politically.

That’s were I had a problem.

As someone who’s been a kind of persistent outsider throughout his life, the idea of a democratic, “marjority rules” kind of God didn’t make much sense to me.

Here’s where the Trinity comes in: for me, the idea of the Trinity helps to explain the radical inclusiveness of God. Our tradition tells us (as was recounted in the first lesson again today) that God created all that is: the heavens and the earth, the dry lands and the seas, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, and all the beasts of the fields and even us. And after each moment of creation, God pronounced that it was good.

God could have created a flat world - monochromatic and bland. God could have made us all alike. But in the act of creating, God made a world rich with diversity. God’s dream as it lives in this world teems with complexity and difference, and God says that it is good.

God is not static or simple.

God is the old white man with the beard, sure. But God is also so much more. God is transcendent, distant, and mysterious. God is the unknown one off in the sky someplace who set us all in motion. But God is also local, personal, and present. God is Christ, our brother, who shares our pain and bears our burdens. God is Spirit, moving in the midst of us. God is the God of the past whose stories are told again and again through our readings and studying. But God is also here and now and for all time to come.

Most importantly, God is where and when and who we least expect God to be.

That’s what the doctrine of the Trinity is about to me. It’s a way of expressing that wisdom that we occasionally uncover that tells us to keep looking for God in unexpected ways. The Trinity tells us to think bigger, because God is ever-more than we can imagine. The Trinity expresses complexity. The Trinity says that God has a way to find us however we need to be found.

And that’s what we celebrate today.

Like that small and scrappy band of followers in an otherwise unremarkable corner of the ancient world who first heard the news of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that complex and always surprising God that we worship has found even us, even here, even now.

And like them, our teacher is also sending us out into the world: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” he says. Look to the people you least suspect of being receptive to or instruments of God, and there will be God. Don’t just look where it’s safe or convenient. Don’t just look where you’re welcomed. But make disciples of ALL nations.

God takes joy in all of the diversity of creation. It takes all of that to reflect the true image of God.

May the Trinity be our road map for dreaming bigger about how our small and scrappy band of followers can better find the truth of the God we’re called the serve. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

To get up and do what needs to be done

The Day of Pentecost A
Acts 2:1-21
John 7:37-39

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

Though we think of the Easter season - and even Pentecost - as a time of celebration, I can’t imagine that it seemed all that joyful that first time around. The idea of resurrection was still so new. The Jesus that they had known for those years had only been revealed as Christ for mere days. The world was upside down and seemed to make even less sense with each passing day.

Then there was the Day of Pentecost.

The disciples must have still been skittish from all of the drama and horror of the crucifixion. Their community had seemed to turn on them. Their leader had been killed. The place spoken about in the Book of Acts - that place where they were gathered - it must have been a kind of sanctuary for them. A place where they could collect their thoughts. A place where they could feel normal - even if only for a moment, and even if confined within just a few walls.

But then there was the Day of Pentecost.

A violent rush of wind encompassed them. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages.

The world was upside down and seems to make even less sense with each passing day.

When I was growing up, it was a family ritual in our household to sit down on Saturday evenings and listen to “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. It wasn’t something we were compelled to do, by any means, it was just something we all did. I probably started listening while sitting on the floor and playing with my toys or something like that. But somewhere along the way I started actually listening.

“A Prairie Home Companion” is on public radio, so it doesn’t actually have any commercials, but they do have fictitious commercials that are interspersed throughout the broadcast. One of the standard ads is for “Podwermilk Biscuits - heavens, they’re tasty - and expeditious!” as they say. Among the many claims made by the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers who produce these gems is that they “give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.”

We all could use a touch of that, couldn’t we? Something that gives shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done?

That’s what the disciples needed that day in their sanctuary. They feared that the world was against them. They feared that they didn’t have the strength to get up to do what needed to be done. Jesus had commissioned them to go out into the world, but they were afraid.

Too often, we are, too.

Just as the disciples had a world that most needed their gifts, so, too, do we. There’s a world just beyond these walls that is aching for community and aching for love. There’s a world that is yearning for God but smothering under the weights of conformity and consumerism. There’s a world that thinks that the work and ritual of baptism is a fool’s errand, all the while it searches for meaning and belonging.

Christ gives us the gifts that we need to meet them where they are, and to invite them in. Each of us needs to preach the gospel we’ve been given in our own way, because there’s a world of people who will each hear it in their own ways.

Today we invite Jules in to this mission. In the years ahead she will grow, and become her own person. She will make her own mistakes and celebrate her own successes. And we, of this community, vow to hold her through all of that. To teach her, and to guide her. To nurture the Holy Spirit that we believe to be living inside of her, just as it lives in us. It’s a sacred trust - one that someone once made for us, and that now we make again for ourselves and for Jules.

The joy of this day is that we’ve found another voice. We’ve found another language to share the message of Christ with a world that aches for it and can here it only in the way that she will tell it.

She will be for us the strength we need to get up and do what needs to be done. We will be the same for her. Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Inextricable Community (or, You are Not Alone)

Easter 6A
John 14:15-21

In the name of God. Amen.

It’s an ongoing joke among preachers who occasionally give “children’s sermons”, that if you ask any question during the course of a children’s sermon - no matter the question - the answer you are likely to receive will be “God”, “Jesus”, or “love”. The funny thing about this reality of the life of the preacher is that it’s very often correct. The problem only comes up when you’re looking for something else: who built the ark? Why did Judas betray Jesus? Who helped the Israelites cross the Red Sea? Sometimes we’re just not looking for God, Jesus, or love!

But the thing is, very often, kids seem to have gotten it right. Perhaps we’re teaching them something in Sunday School after all!

When you’re faced with a question about the Bible or about our life as Christians - particularly about God and Jesus - the answer is, very often, love. That’s the message of Jesus in the gospel lesson for today. And not just love, but love in community.

I was laughing with a friend earlier this week about the writing in John’s gospel. Sometimes its poetry is simply so moving. But then there are those other times… Sometimes John seems so wrapped up in making a logical argument that it’s hard to cut through the web of words - as if he’s so trying to cover all possibilities so much that hardly a shred of clarity of what he means can slip through!

Like today for example: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

It’s like John is trying to cover all the possibilities. But in leaving no relationship unmentioned, he almost muddies it all!

But what is John talking about? I am in the Father and the Father is in me and I am in you? The description sound like those Russian nesting dolls, but as if they were nesting both ways - the larger dolls nesting inside the smaller!

And that’s kind of what it is, I suppose.

The message of Jesus in John’s gospel is the message of inextricable community. The communal nature of God lives in the community of God’s followers. And the loving nature of God lives in the love of the community of God’s people.

The message of Jesus is a message of community.

One of the challenges of this text in the English language is that there is no grammatically correct translation of the plural “you”. Of course, in the South, we have “y’all”, which better conveys what John’s Jesus is talking about here, but among most English speakers, “you” can be either singular or plural.

The problem with that is, it leaves a pretty essential part of the message to interpretation.

When I was in seminary Bishop Croneberger taught a course on Episcopal polity to the Episcopal students at Drew University. Early in the course he asked us what we thought the “central unit” of the Episcopal Church was. Most people guessed that it was the parish - are we not a collection of parishes? A few people guessed that it was the General Convention - the source of our laws and governance. But Bishop Croneberger taught that the central unit of the Episcopal Church is the diocese. As a church, we are essentially a collection of dioceses. It is the dioceses that make up the General Convention and the dioceses that create the parishes.

Similarly, we might ask ourselves, “What is the central unit of Christianity?”

I think Jesus would say that it’s “you” - but the plural variety. More accurately, “Y’all”.

The problem is, our culture has trained us away from any inclination toward hearing “you” in its plural form. We have been conditioned to think individualistically. We have been conditioned away from community. When we hear “Christ is in you,” we tend to hear it more as “Christ is in me,” not “Christ is in us.”

It’s true that Christ is in each of us. But the fullness of Christ can’t be understood that way. Our only hope of approaching an understanding of the fullness of Christ is in understanding it through community - through the aspects of Christ that are beyond ourselves, and complementary to the bits of truth that each of us brings.

One of my favorite shows on television is “Good Eats” on the Food Network. In it, Alton Brown, the show’s host, explains the science behind why cooking works the way it does. On a episode that I watched recently he explained why salty and sweet flavors go so well together. It’s really amazing - very often, sweet flavors naturally come with bitter flavors. One answer to this dilemma is to make something sweeter - to try to mask the bitterness. But, he explained, salt has the ability to block the bitter receptors in the tongue. As such, a little salt hides the bitterness making sweet flavors stand out all the more. Neither salt alone nor sugar alone can create a flavor as complex and satisfying as the two paired together.

That’s the way it is in community. Together we create a complexity that more closely mirrors the reality of God than any of us could alone. Our sweetness and our savory-ness, and yes, sometimes even our bitterness, all come together. They work together and they complement one another and sometimes even counteract one another.

Christ does not leave us orphaned - we are not alone. The Spirit of truth lives in us. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Let not your hearts be troubled

Easter 5A
John 14:1-14

In the name of God. Amen.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

One of the secrets of preaching - at least as I’ve seen it - is simply to spend time with the words. I usually start the process of writing the sermon for each Sunday after church on the Sunday before by simply reading through the texts and thinking about the words almost as if I’d never heard them before.

Throughout the week there are many other steps in the preparation - from the more spiritual side: praying about the congregation and where we are and what I think we need to hear, and thinking and praying about my own life and where I am and what I think I need to hear; to the more practical side: reading commentaries, and doing exegesis, and making notes, and sketching outlines. But in reality, the single thing that helps me to prepare to preach each week more than anything else is just sitting with the words - noticing which ones stand out for me, noticing which ones take on the quality of prayer in themselves.

This week it was this simple, familiar opening line: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

It became like a mantra to me - repeating that short, simple phrase over and over again as I went about my daily tasks.

Part of why these words are so familiar to so many of us is because they are very often the words read at funerals. They’re designed to give us comfort in times of uncertainty.

And it’s not just that the choice of them is by design, though it certainly is. But even Jesus’ intention here is to give the disciples comfort in what is about to become a time of great uncertainty for them. This is the beginning of what is known among biblical scholars as “the farewell discourse” in John’s gospel. It’s where Jesus begins the process of saying goodbye before his crucifixion.

But we’re still in Easter, right? Point a), didn’t we already lose Jesus a few weeks ago on Good Friday, and point b), isn’t the point of Easter that we don’t really have to say goodbye?

It takes a little teasing out. It’s true; we’re still celebrating the Resurrection and our belief that Christ overcame the bonds of death. But it’s also true that Easter is almost over: just two more Sundays after today. And then it’s Pentecost - when we celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit to inspire and strengthen the church that follows Christ. But just before Pentecost, is the Ascension: when Christ was raised again, this time to reign over all with God the Creator.

So today our cycle of readings give us the first whispers of a goodbye: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.”

There have been times in my life when I’ve heard these words with less grace than I do today. Perhaps it’s because my heart is not particularly “troubled” right now that I can allow them to wash over me with a sense of peace. But there have been times, and very likely will be times again, when these words would strike me as jarring - perhaps even dismissive.

If your heart really is troubled, you don’t particularly want to hear, “Do not let your heart be troubled.” It would be like saying “there are plenty of fish in the sea” to someone who is going through a difficult breakup, or “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” to someone who feels decidedly weaker during a challenging time in their life. Whether or not those statements are true in a given situation, in times of crisis they really don’t help.

But today, Jesus’ words don’t strike me as trite or cliché. They strike me as words of reassurance from a trusted, old friend.

It’s true that in just a couple of weeks it will be time to say “farewell” to Jesus again. He’ll still be around, of course, but in a different way than we’ve probably become used to. The Easter times in our lives always seem a little too short-lived. At the end of them we invariably return to a kind of “life as usual”. But it has to be a new kind of “life as usual”. After confronting Easter, life is never quite the same as it was before.

For the past week or so, Christianity has been in the spotlight once again. Sadly, that’s almost never a good thing. When it’s not because of scandals or infighting, our spotlight seems to shine to poke fun. Some time ago, a fundamentalist man in California decided that he’d figured out when the end of the world would come. It would be yesterday, he said. It seems that people are nearly always predicting the end of the world, but for some reason, this time the rumors took hold and the popular culture paid attention.

Lots of people had fun with it. I’ll admit, I did a little, too. But now, in the wake, I find myself almost sad. Not that I was hoping yesterday would be the end of my earthly life - I really still feel like I’ve got a lot left to do here. But I’m almost sad, because once again, Christianity has become the subject of ridicule by some of the people in the world who most yearn for the messages we try to share with the world when we’re at our best: the messages of love, and of community, and of concern for those regarded as “least” in the world. I’m sad for all those who pinned their hope on a false prophesy instead of on the very real and living love of Christ as it can be known in even this world. I’m sad because I fear it may lead to crises of faith that most of us can’t possibly fathom among those who most wanted to believe.

But in another way, it’s like Easter all over again. As I heard a friend say over the weekend, “I, for one, am not sorry to rise and find the flawed world still turning this morning. I am grateful to the predictors of The End for inviting us all to look up and around today, with an extra bit of wakeful reverence for just how truly beautiful the imperfect can be.”

That’s really what it means to “let not our hearts be troubled.” It’s not trite or cliché. It’s not a denial of imperfection. It’s peace in the face of inevitable imperfection.

The world is not perfect. And every time we see that again, and moreover see that “it’s not the end of the world” just because the world isn’t perfect, it’s Easter again. Every time we “look up and around with an extra bit of wakeful reverence for just how truly beautiful the imperfect can be,” it’s Easter again.

It may be time to start saying goodbye to the Easter normal, but Easter is always within reach. It’s just a matter of reaching out for it.

The world may not have ended yesterday as some had believed it would, but perhaps if this week inspires a little more “wakeful reverence” a part of it did - at least for a while. If so, then we all have reason to let the troubles of our hearts rest. At least for a while. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

There's no way around it

Easter 4A
John 10:1-10
Acts 2:42-47

In the name of God. Amen.

There seems to be no way around it.

Each year in the Easter season, the First Lesson each Sunday is from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. Have you noticed the change? Throughout most of the year the first lesson that we read each week is reserved for a lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures (or “The Old Testament). But in the Easter season, we read three lessons from the New Testament instead of our usual two.

I’ll admit that it’s one of my favorite times of year.

You may remember from Palm Sunday that I talked about how we’re not just passive observers of the stories of history, but that we are active participants in a faith that still lives today. It is, perhaps, easiest to think that way around Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, but it’s true all year - not just on Holy Days. We are still active participants - even now.

As we struggle to embrace the wild ideas of new life in this still-celebrated Easter season - particularly now: in a wider culture that can’t seem to hear it - the corresponding experiences of our sisters and brothers from centuries ago in the time of the Acts seem particularly relevant. How much more must they have felt strange and outside their culture than we do?! How much more must they have felt the pressures of a culture that wanted nothing to do with the joys of resurrection that they were uncovering?!

Yes, there’s just no way around it. In these first days after that earth-shaking first Easter, we turn to our ancestors of the earliest days of the church to hear how they found a way to live with their new reality - because we are still searching for how to live with ours.

The short answer for how they found a way to live with their new reality was this: they stuck together. In what would come to be called “the church”, they began their lives as Christians by banding together. They learned early on, and through the teachings of Jesus, that they were stronger together.

For many years I’ve used the metaphor of music to describe my relationship with the church. These days it seems fashionable for people to talk about being “spiritual but not religious”, or to talk about their faith as it’s practiced individually. People often speak with pride about how they “don’t need to church to believe in God.”

In response to such conversations I often talk about how I experience music: I love music. I can feel moved by beautiful music like almost nothing else. And though the performance of a single voice can be powerful - whether instrumental or vocal - and though it can even help me to better experience God, it is never as rich as when it’s combined with other voices in a symphony or a chorus. The voices join in complementing and contrasting lines - often even in outright dissonance - to provide a richness that no one voice alone could convey.

That’s the way the church is to me. As beautiful and moving as individual faith is for me, it’s all the more moving when joined with other voices - in harmonies, but even in dissonances. Together we capture what I believe to be a truer picture of the reality of God.

And that seems to be what our forbearers in the earliest church seem to have discovered as well.

The stories from the Book of Acts seem almost fantastical to most of us in the church today. Throughout most of our lives we’ve felt the slow drip of decline in the church. We’re in a season of history in which the church is having a crisis of recognizing and conveying its relevance to the wider culture in which it finds itself.

But when we read from Acts we hear stories of thousands who are converted to the faith after hearing a single sermon! Even today’s lesson closes by saying, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” In a church - not just our parish, but the church as a whole - that sometimes feels like it’s fighting for its life, and perhaps even its soul, words like this sound pretty attractive.

But how did they get there?

Well, there’s no way around it.

They didn’t get there through slick advertising campaigns or give-aways. They didn’t get there by hiring praise bands or singing the hymns that everyone wanted to hear. They didn’t even get there by hiring a preacher that made everybody feel good.

They got there by being the church. “Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

There’s simply no way around it.

In the Gospel lesson today we hear lots of imagery about gates and gatekeepers. I’ll admit that that’s not my favorite imagery for the faith. Too often in the church we concern ourselves with gates and gatekeepers at our peril. We see the church as something to be hoarded and protected - keeping it separate from those we see as outsiders. But that’s not the point of the gates and gatekeepers in Jesus’ image here. Jesus leads those who will follow outside the gates.

There are those, we’re warned, who do not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but who try to climb in by another way. But the truth is, there is no other way.

That’s what those followers of the early church knew. And it’s what we, of the church today, would be wise to remember: there’s no way around the secrets of a successful church or even a strong personal faith. Many may try to climb in by another way, but the true path to a successful and thriving church was outlined for us in the Book of Acts - the story of the first successful church - and we reaffirm it each time we renew our own baptismal commitment: we are called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

There’s your recipe for a strong church. If we all commit to devoting ourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to our common fellowship, to the breaking of bread - both in fellowship and in sacrament, and to a genuine and heartfelt prayer life - if we do all of that, and not just on Sundays, but all the time, then we will be a strong church. There’s simply no way around it.

May this be our Easter promise: that we recommit ourselves to the basic elements of our faith that so often seem lost or buried; that we reject all the false promises of shortcuts, recognizing that only a living, day-to-day practice of faith will truly make us strong; and that we remember that we can only do it together.

That’s what the first Christians learned and there’s still no way around it. Amen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christians behaving strangely

 The Easter Altar at St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City, NJ

Easter Day A
Matthew 28:1-10

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

This time of year must seem sort of strange to most people: we Christians gathering; spending lots of money on flowers; spending lots of time to make sure everything is as beautiful as it can be; eating good food; going to church - even at times when we might not normally.

But the strangest thing of all isn’t what we do, but why we do it.

It’s been said that the only sure things in life are death and taxes, and we, in the church, are saying that we’re not even sure about that.

Don’t get me wrong. Death is real. You only needed to be at church on Good Friday to realize that the church doesn’t doubt death. We take it seriously. We believe in it. And how could we not? We all encounter death out there, in the real world, every day. Whether it’s in its more literal forms - the physical death of loved ones, or world tragedies with mass casualties, or our own gradual awakenings to the reality that our bodies simply won’t last forever; or whether it’s more metaphorical - the death of relationships, or the death of once-held hopes or dreams - either way we can’t escape the reality of death.

And the Bible doesn’t ask us to.

Just listen to the words of the angel who greeted the women at the tomb: he descended from heaven, rolled away the stone, and SAT on it. I imagine him almost smirking as he sat there, perhaps reclining, relishing in the shock they must have felt at that first Easter.

Through the kind of grin that barely holds back a giggle he said, “I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified…”

The angel didn’t deny the crucifixion. The power of God didn’t undo the crucifixion. It was still as horrible and traumatic as the women had witnessed and could still remember. Their pain as mourners was still very real. But it wasn’t all there was.

That’s why today is so strange. We know that death is real. But we believe there’s something more.

It reminds me of the story of the old preacher from down South. He was preaching an Easter sermon and trying to talk about the difference between knowledge and belief. Lost in the moment of his sermon he suddenly pointed down to his wife and five children who were seated dutifully in the front row just under the pulpit. He pointed to them and called out, “See all those children gathered up on the front row? My wife, she KNOWS they’re all hers. I BELIEVE they’re all mine!”

Yes, we know that death is real. But our faith pushes us to believe that there’s something more.

It’s a hard truth.

One of the most persistent questions in any faith is why bad things happen to good people. I’ve thought a lot about that question. I’ve studied the great thinkers, who have wrestled with it. I’ve prayed about it and wrestled with it, myself. But, the truth is, I’ve never found an answer - at least not a satisfying one. When I’m confronted with suffering - either my own or the suffering of those I love and care for - I still don’t know why.

And the truth is, in the agony of the moment it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why we suffer. It doesn’t even matter that we won’t be suffering forever.

But we WON’T be suffering forever.

That’s what Easter is about. It’s about putting aside - even if only for a moment - the suffering, and the pain, and the agony of the moment - whatever that moment may be in our own lives - so that we can remember that it’s not the end of the story. So that we can remember that, despite whatever we may think we know, we can believe something more.

Earlier this week, while I was getting my hair cut here in the neighborhood, the man cutting my hair asked me, “So why do they call it ‘Good’ Friday, anyway? It seems to me like it was pretty bad.”

Well, he was right. It was a pretty bad day. But today is why Friday was “Good”.

You can’t get to Easter without passing through Good Friday. You can’t get to Resurrection without enduring death.

I don’t know why. But it is the way it is.

You may have come in here thinking the world has somehow passed you by. Perhaps you’re still stuck on Good Friday. But that’s okay. In here, things are strange. It’s okay if you’re strange, and it’s okay if we are.

Those women at the tomb - the first witnesses of Easter - they probably weren’t ready either.

You don’t have to fully embrace Easter before you’re ready. We’ll be celebrating here for fifty days. And even after that, we still have some Easter every Sunday. So take your time. Come to your own Easter when you’re ready. And in the meantime, take this day as a foretaste of the promise: Easter is coming; new life is breaking through. Alleluia!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

I decided not to preach today

**NOTE -- This isn't a word-for-word reprint of the sermon I preached today as they usually are.  I didn't use a manuscript (very out of character for me).  And I also preached before the Gospel, instead of after.  Very unusual for the liturgy of my tradition, and as such, very unusual for me.  But I read a rationalization for doing this - particularly on Palm Sunday - in a Feasting on the Word commentary, and it made a lot of sense to me.  So I thought I'd give it a try.

As I said, I didn't prepare a manuscript, but focused my attention, as one of my friends has put it, on preaching from a prepared heart.  I wouldn't do it often - either rearrange the liturgy or not use a manuscript (not right now anyway) but I think it worked for today.  Here's my best memory of what I tried to say.**

Sunday of the Passion, Year A
Matthew 24:14-27:66

I decided not to preach today.

At least not like I normally would.

One thing you've probably noticed right up front is that the sermon usually follows the Gospel.  But we haven't read the Gospel yet, and here I am.

There's not a priest alive who hasn't, at one time or another, been grateful for the liturgy.  You see, even when words fail us - even when we feel utterly incompetent when facing the task of expounding upon or unraveling the words of the Gospel - even then, the liturgy never fails to preach.  When we fail (and we all do at one time or another) we can always count on the liturgy to find the message that we couldn't find.

That's true every Sunday and every other time we gather to worship God.

But perhaps it's even more true today, on Palm Sunday - the Sunday of the Passion.  The liturgy always says more than any one of us could ever say, but today it seems to be saying even more.

Most of you know that four years ago I had the amazing good fortune to be able to study in Jerusalem for Holy Week and Easter.  It's always an incredible time to be in Jerusalem, but that year it was particularly so.  It was one of the rare years when the Orthodox observance of Easter coincided with the Western observance of Easter.  It was also Passover for our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as the celebration of the Nativity of Muhammad for our Muslim brothers and sisters.  All three Abrahamic faiths came together in a single holy time.  The atmosphere was electric with the anticipation of encounters with the Holy Spirit wherever we went.

I was there, specifically, to study the Holy Week and Easter liturgies of the Orthodox traditions represented in Jerusalem.  The experience changed my life in many ways, but I'll never forget the words of our lecturer near the beginning of the course, when he was trying to help us to wrap our minds around what would be, for many of us, our first experience worshiping in an Orthodox liturgy.

He explained a simple difference that would forever shape how I understand what we're doing here in worship.  He said, "For most of us in the Western churches, even the most catholic among us, it's hard to think of liturgy as something other than a commemoration.  When we do liturgy, we usually think of it as a remembrance of or an homage to things that happened very long ago.  But our friends in the Orthodox churches see things a little differently.  They see themselves as a part of the story more clearly than we usually do.  They see themselves as active participants in the ongoing drama of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus."

It changed my life.

With this view, liturgy can never be outdated, or archaic, or irrelevant.  Jesus wasn't just a great guy who did neat things a long time ago.  Life, death, and resurrection are happening around us all the time.  It's happening right now - in this city.  Even in this room.  It will be happening tomorrow, and every day in the future.

I've come to believe that that's always true.  But perhaps never in our liturgical lives do we act it out more clearly than we do today, on Palm Sunday.

Think about it.  We started in the Parish Hall.  We started today by shifting our focus, and doing things a little differently.  We drew attention from our neighbors as we foolishly walked across the front lawn of the church and gathered at the church door to pray again.  We joined our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their joyful shouts and songs of "Hosanna!".

But somewhere along the way today - I'm not sure exactly where - the mood shifts.  We go from the excitement of a fun-filled parade in a different place and with a different focus, to - just a few minutes from now - joining our brothers and sisters of those many centuries ago in their hate-filled shouts of "Crucify him!".

How did it happen?

How did it happen then, and how does it happen now?

I don't really know.

But today things are a little different.  Maybe even a little uncomfortable.

We'll even read the Gospel a little differently.  Usually some of us walk into the congregation to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of you - but today, it's your job to take a share in the proclaiming.  We have readers who will read the parts of the Narrator, Jesus, the Disciples, Pilate, the Priests, and the Pharisees.  But your job is a little harder.  Your job is to fill in all the blanks - to be the voice of those unnamed characters that made up all the others.  You'll have to follow along.  You'll have to pay attention - maybe a little more so than your used to having to.

But the truth about our lives as Christians is, we all have a role to play.  Sometimes it takes some work, and sometimes it's uncomfortable, but we all have a role to play.  We all take part in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Think about that as you read these difficult words.  Think about it in the long silence which will follow.

What is your part in the story?  What has it been?  What do you hope it will be?

We all have our roles to play in this drama.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It takes my breath away

**NOTE - I'm back after a bit of a hiatus.  We had a guest preacher on the Second Sunday in Lent, and then I missed the Third and Fourth Sundays in Lent to recover from back surgery.  Today was my first day back.  Thanks for your patience!**

Lent 5A
John 11:1-45

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

Lent can be one of the times of the Christian year that, I think, tends to make the most sense to many of us. During the rest of the year we’re asked to celebrate or to hear about miracles, and it just doesn’t always make sense. But during Lent, we’re asked to move into a deeper understanding of suffering, of the darkness that can so often envelop us.

That makes sense.

We’ve all been there. Even - maybe especially - if we find ourselves somehow forgetting celebration and joy now and then, most of us can always identify with suffering.

Lent can sometimes feel like falling into a large, overstuffed chair - not exactly “comfortable”, per se, but secure, surrounded, understood.

A few years ago, I had to the good fortune to study the words of the gospel lesson appointed for today on Monday in Holy Week while traveling through Jerusalem. In the chronology of John’s account of the life of Jesus, the story of Lazarus comes just before Jesus heads into his suffering and death in Jerusalem. We all know how everything progresses, but the lesson today tells us that his disciples must have begun to get the hint also: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” says Andrew, almost snidely. The story of Lazarus stands as a kind of foreshadowing of how the story of Jesus would unfold in Jerusalem, and the disciples seemed to think they could see it coming.

The suffering and the death seem to have loomed like writing on the wall, but I don’t think the disciples could have imagined what they would find. I always find myself a little surprised by what I find in this gospel lesson, too.

Death is expected. We all die. But life bursting through the bonds of death? No one could have seen that coming.

But truth be told, that’s not even what really surprises me when I hear these words. The thing that never fails to take my breath away is the way Jesus’ humanity breaks through his divinity so clearly in this passage. It’s probably some kind of heresy to say so, but I’m always so much more impressed by Jesus’ humanity than by his divinity. We’ve all heard the words of the doctrine - fully God and fully human. But it’s the human part that makes me a Christian. And I think it’s the human part that can set our faith apart from all of the other pursuits of spirituality in its many forms and understandings.

There are countless ways to interact with God.

While I was bed-bound over the past few weeks I watched a lot of movies. One of the last ones was “Eat, Pray, Love”. The main character, played by Julia Roberts, sets out on a yearlong expedition to find something that seems lost in her life. She begins with four months in Italy for a little “self-care therapy”. She makes friends, she learns the language, she eats decadent food and drinks in the wine and the culture. Then for the next eight months she visits India and Bali to practice Eastern spirituality - a stark contrast from the decadence she had come to love. There’s no question that she finds some understanding of God in that process. But in each of her destinations, it’s not the “spirituality” that helps her to really find what she’s looking for. Instead, it’s the relationships that she forms. It’s the love that she encounters. In short, it’s the humanity. The spirituality certainly helps her to be more open to those beautiful things in life, but she can’t really grasp them until the deeper truths of spirituality are uncovered through her relationships.

It’s always humbling when I remember that about this faith of ours: that God does not just work from the great beyond - whatever that may be - but that God works through people. People just like us. The creator needs the created. And it’s through our encounters with Jesus that this becomes most clear.

Through so many of the stories of our faith we forget that. We spend our time in awe of Christ, our Lord at the expense of really embracing and understanding the humility and the humanity of Jesus, our brother.

If all you remember from the story of Lazarus is that Christ brought him back to life, you’re really missing something. Jesus was not JUST God. Jesus was a human being. He was a part of a community. And when encountering the suffering of one of his own, he suffered, too.

“Jesus began to weep.”

The whole experience was a lesson for Mary and Martha and all the community - Jesus is always a teacher. The raising of Lazarus was a miracle, certainly. That divine essence is recounted time and again through the gospels. But beneath the teacher and the miracle worker is something more. Something we too often forget. Something human.

And though we rarely think about it in exactly this way, perhaps that’s why Lent can make such sense to so many of us. Lessons are often lost on our feeble attempts at understanding and the kinds of miracles we read about seem too outrageous to fully wrap our minds around the concepts. But humanity is real. We have no doubt.

It’s that humanity that connects us to God.

It has been a great sadness for me to have missed so much of this Lenten journey with you in the way that I’d imagined we would share it. But unfortunately, my own humanity got in the way for a little while. But I’m glad to be back with you - my community - as we take these final steps through the wilderness on the road to resurrection.

We’re getting close now. Bethany is just two miles away. Jerusalem is just over the next hill.

These last steps will long and tiring, but together, we can make it. Together, our community is stronger than anyone’s humble humanity.

On we go. Amen.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Lent is for new life

Lent 1A
Matthew 4:1-11

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

Welcome to Lent. Contrary to popular assumptions, this season isn’t really about expunging all happiness from your life. For many people, Lent can seem like something of a downer - a morose season. But that’s really not what it’s about. It’s about looking deeper inside ourselves and uncovering those inner places where we feel most distant from God. It’s about uncovering our habits and temptations that keep us from feeling the truth of our connectedness.

But even more so, the reality is that Lent is not just a season in the church, but a part of the reality in all of our lives - at one time or another, anyway. We all have times in our lives when we feel lost in the wilderness - times when we don’t understand; times when feel alone. And we will all be stronger if we learn to see these times - whenever they come - as times of preparation for Resurrection.

Too often the church is accused of making people feel bad, or guilty. And when (and if) we do, we are acting in contrast to the nature of God. God makes new life. That is God’s nature. God draws life to God’s self. That is God’s nature.

Whenever we tear down life or draws lines of separation: that is not God. That is human failure.

So even though we may have gotten it wrong in the past, the job of the church is not just to point out how separate you are from God, but it is the job of the church to point you to the path of Easter - to the path of union and joy and Resurrection.

It is our job to point out the true nature of the God of all creation.

That’s what Lent is really about.

In the Gospel lesson today, we hear the story of Jesus’ lent. The road from our celebration at his birth to his ministry among us passes first through a season of discernment and preparation. We are told that Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness. It was then that temptation crept in. He was hungry and he was weak, and he was tempted with sustenance and power.

That’s the way temptation works. It meets us in those places where we are most vulnerable and offers promises of power.

Lent challenges us to confront our temptation - to see it and to recognize it - to recognize it as one of those things that can make us feel separate from God.

You may have heard by now that one of our own members of this community died yesterday. Arthur Galloway: husband of Cassandra, and father of Serenia and Glenda. Death is always a sad time in the life of any community, and perhaps that sadness feels even more acute now, with the death of one so young, and who seemed so healthy.

So many of us find that we are in a wilderness of our own right now.

The truth is, there really are no easy answers as to why tragedy strikes. Whether it’s an earthquake in Japan that triggers tsunamis across the ocean, or the sudden death of a loved one, there are no easy answers. It can be tempting to look for them, but any we find will prove illusory sooner or later.

All we can really do is build community, and strengthen the bonds of love and affection that hold us together. Because in times like these we need them all the more. In times of crisis, they are the only things that will hold us closer to God.

God doesn’t cause suffering. But in all of our lives we will have a season of it here and there. So we prepare by loving, for it is only love, which can truly sustain us in the Lenten seasons of our lives.

Lent isn’t about feeling bad. It’s about learning to find life and resurrection, even when they seem most difficult to see.

And this Lent will pass and Easter will be waiting on the other side. It always is.

Thanks be to God. Amen.