To Live with Truth (or: Truth is a Triangle) --- Richard J. Jones

 My name is Richard Jones. I once lived for three years in Hollin Hall Village, but I am not your rector (although I admire him), or his assistant (although Grace invited me), or a former rector.

 

So why should you listen to me?

Why should you believe anything I say this morning?

By what authority do I presume to stand here and speak to you as if I could speak for God?

I invite you to think about what makes any human speech believable?

 

At one time or another, when we attempt to affirm something, to stand for something, or to demand something, all of us may be disbelieved.

 

You presume to tell some raucous midnight basketball players on the court behind your house, “This park closed at sundown”, they may well answer, “Who says?”

 

You try to deter a child or a friend from harm by saying, “There will be drugs, or alcohol, at that party. Don’t go.” The child, or the friend, may answer “Who says? Why should you tell me what to do?”

 

If you hold national responsibilities requiring you to demand some foreign sovereign government to curtail its building and testing of nuclear weapons, you will predictably be met with, “By what authority do you make this demand?”

Even if you are not demanding different behavior. but are simply declaring what you know to be true, you may still be met by resistance. The more deeply held the belief, the more the believer must resist changing. And the deepest of beliefs is our belief in God. 

Along comes Jesus: allowing his gang of fans to crowd the streets and to shriek to him as if he were a king or a prophet; yanking the seats in the Temple yard out from under the dealers in sacrificial birds; turning upside down the tables of workers who were simply giving out sacred offering coins in exchange for ordinary street coins. What else could the known upholders of the truth do except confront Jesus of Nazareth, this disturber of the peace? “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority?”

 

What makes human speech believable? What makes any statement reliable?

 

 

People are right to challenge words that come from nowhere and disturb the peace.

Just because certain words are spoken does not compel me to believe or obey those words.

No matter how much I like the fortune promised me on the little paper inside my tasty fortune cookie, that printed fortune may be pure fantasy.

Even the utterances of city council, or public safety directors, or prophets of God do not validate themselves.  They do not compel the obedience of anyone who has any gumption, or has any prior commitments, or has been taught to think for himself.

 

Who says so? Why should I believe you?  By what authority do you seek to direct me? Why should I obey you?

 

I suppose people will always struggle over what speech is true and what action is required. We struggle both as listeners who respond, and as speakers who initiate.  You might picture our speech struggles as something like the never-ending struggle of traffic maneuvering around DuPont Circle in Washington DC – except in our verbal arguments the traffic is circling clockwise and counter clockwise, all the time. No policemen sorts out our arguments for us.

 

An endless struggle, with likely collisions, may be the way family discussions or political discussions or even church discussions feel.

 

I would like to offer you a different image of our speech  situation.  I suggest to you that rather than circles of collision, we actually are involved in a stable triangle of simultaneous commitments.  Our commitments give meaning to our individual lives, our life together, and our life with God. I think of this triangle as equal-sided and simultaneous. We operate on an  interlocking, triangular grid of commitments. Not three commitments competing, but three commitments which depend on each other.

 

If you will hold in your mind’s eye this picture of a triangle, it may help explain what makes speech reliable. It may help us move towards making our own speech believable.

 

The first side of this triangle you could call SPEAKING UP. We are all committed to ourselves. We trust ideas that are confirmed by our personal experience. We believe bees sting if we have been stung. We believe authority is reliable if our parents or commanding officers were reliable. We value what we have found valuable. We speak out of what we have experienced. We wish to be true to these experiences and to ourselves. You might call this side of the triangle “integrity”. I call it speaking up. Speaking up, out of our own experience, feels like standing firm on a firm base.

 

To live with truth, we need to speak up.

 

But we do not wish to live locked up inside ourselves. We do not wish to remain oblivious to larger reality. That way lies madness. So we acknowledge a second side of the triangle. We could call this second side of the triangle DATA. Or we could call it SPEAKING WIDE. The universe contains lots outside ourselves, beyond our personal experience, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be described.  Better telescopes widen our way of imagining and describing space and time. Better microscopes begin to widen old ideas of race. Christian theologians ponder again the data of God’s being both with us and also totally beyond us. In time we find ourselves sitting to worship God more in a circle than in a forward-facing formation. Rethinking compels us to adjust some of our ideas of what is possible, what is real, and what is good, as our minds become persuaded of new truth. We come to know things that had never occurred to us. Ideas that once captivated us we may come to find untenable.  We do not wish to live in delusion.  The side of the triangle which tries to put our data into words has to be flexible. We have to speak wide.

 

To speak with personal integrity, we speak up. That is the base of our reliable speech triangle. Tohonor the data, we refine or revise our speech; we speak wide. But there is one more side to the triangle.   Besides reckoning with ourselves and with the data, our speech must also reckon with the source of the data and the source of ourselves. We want to connect with what is true, what is real. I call this final side of the triangle SPEAKING DEEP.

We desire truth. Just as our ideas have to be revised so that they more closely match what we continue to discover to be true, so our selves want to stretch themselves to connect with this Truth.  And this truth wants to connect with us.

When the physicist Robert Oppenheimer observed the first release of atomic fission energy at the test A-bomb test explosion in the New Mexico desert, he reports that his mind went to Vishnu, the Hindu destroyer of worlds.

A deeply committed white member of the neo-Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s was drawn one day to the music of a black jazzpianist in a bar, and in time that white man was opened to the full humanity of his new musician friend.

The people quarreled with Moses: “Why did you bring us out to this place with no water, to kill us and our livestock with thirst?” Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Then Moses heard the Lord command him: “Strike the rock. Water will come out of it so the people may drink.” You might call this kind of speaking “engaged speech”. I call this third side of the triangle SPEAKING DEEP. Even as our grasp of data changes, even as our ideas to of what is possible change, the source of all that truly is has power to act on us.  We respond to truth outside ourselves that has taken hold deeply inside of us. We engage with Truth. The Truth engages with us. Deep call to deep.  The deep source of all that is is willing to be in touch with the speaker. That is deep listening and deep speech.

 

To me it is good news that reliable speech is not an endless, contradictory circle but instead a connected, stable triangular grid, like an electric grid, charged with truth.

 

What does it sound and feel like as human beings to live with truth, to live with this charged grid of reliable speech, speaking up, speaking wide, and speaking deep?

 

It feels good that the grid that connects me to my speech. The grid of truth tests me and my speech. Do I do what I say? Do I behave like what I say I am? If what I profess contradicts what I do, something has to give. I may have to change my talk, or change my ways. I may have to resign from my job.

It is good for the triangular grid to test my speech also against the data of what really is. Am I exerting myself for what is true, or for a flattering fiction? Am I leading people to a waterless campground? If I have been committed to a delusion, a true reckoning with the data will undermine my misdirected zeal.

 

It is also good news that what is real may speak to me if I expose myself to what is real. Exposing ourselves is not painless. A thirsty, angry mob is frightening. Engaging the life-threatening fire at the top of God’s burning mountain, Moses the one-time prince of Egypt was shaken. But Moses saw the face of God. And Moses lived. Moses spoke to God, and God spoke to Moses. Better to taste in my mouth the ashes of my own delusion than to lead other people into delusion. Still better to cry to God and to hear that God is reliable.

 

So, out on the dangerous traffic circle of this world’s contradictory speaking, whose word is to be believed? We can rely on the triangular grid of true speech.

We trust sincere speakers who speak up from their experience and keep their word.

We trust even more those who speak up and speak wide, who keep allowing the data to speak to them.

We trust most those who speak up, and speak wide, and speak deep, because these have heard from the one who is the source of all speaking. They have heard from the source of all speakers.  If the one who is the source of all data, the source even of my deepest experiences, has deigned to speak, who can not stop to listen?

 

The reliable speaker is the one who is willing both to hear and to speak. Such people can speak up, and can speak wide, and can speak deep.

I can trust people who from their heart speak up. I can trust people who speak wide. I can trust most deeply people who speak deep.

 

Thanks be to the God who speaks!

Brian Tringali's Labor Day Sermon on Sept. 3, 2017

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable to God the Father, Jesus the Son and to the Holy Spirit that dwells within me.  Amen.

Please be seated.

I want to take a moment and reflect on this morning’s reading from ROMANS (12:9).

Let love be genuine: hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love on another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

Best advice ever.I think my own spiritual journey started on the LA Freeway when we were passing the community known as “Watts” in our ’68 Dodge Station Wagon.  My sister and I were probably in the far back seat – the one facing the oncoming traffic.  I am fairly certain the car had no seat belts – at least not back there. 

 

I had seen cities burning in the distance before.  I vividly remember the night sky on the way to see the launch of Apollo 11 and my parents explaining that racial riots were going on across the south and that we would be staying along the highway and avoiding urban areas as a result.  This, while one of mankind’s greatest achievements was about to happen.

 

On this California day, I had seen the morning news.  I had already read the LA Times and seen the pictures there too.  But now we were driving by and seeing the smoldering remains in person.  And like a flash, I realized that people lived in Watts.  They had families too.  How could they go on? 

 

And then I thought about all the people who were driving by like we were.  Would they care?  Did I?  How come I was only thinking about them now? 

When my Dad went to Vietnam (and I was six) I had thought about the impact on people.  I knew that if your Dad was a helicopter pilot he was probably not coming home.  I knew that if my Dad got home, people would not thank him or respect him.  Thank God that has changed.

 

I think I must have thanked God in that moment for my Dad making it home.  That got me thinking about God.  That got me thinking about why bad things happen.  Didn’t God care about the people of Watts?

 

I knew God cared.  God was perfect.  People were flawed.  It was part of God’s plan.  Indeed, God had a plan for each and every one of us.  God knew about and cared about every one of those families in Watts and even about all those people driving by on the LA freeway who pretended not to notice the smoldering ashes. 

 

All of us were just driving by much like the “valley of ashes” in The Great Gatsby.  I definitely read too much for a kid, but now I understood F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point.  So my revelation sitting in traffic on the LA freeway might not be a new thing.  Yet it was new to me and it started to re-shape my thinking.

 

This was a burden, but it seemed like part of growing up.  I had already felt tremendous responsibility for my family when my Dad went to Viet Nam.  I had been told I was the “man of the house.”  Should I feel the same responsibility for the rest of humanity.  Did God expect this of us?  I decided he did. 

 

I remember being overwhelmed with the knowledge that every individual life was just as complicated as my own.  But I also remember being overjoyed that God cared just as much about every one of them.  I dwelled on that a lot at the time.  But then I started to think about what God expected us to do about it.  In many ways, I think that is what my spiritual journey has been about – and more and more what my life is about.

 

In many ways, my own spiritual journey began on that day.  It has remained a struggle to live with both the joy of salvation offered to each of us and the responsibility to take care of each other until that day.  A struggle to balance joy and responsibility.

 

The tougher part is what I call “Tuck’s question.”  What is God calling us to do in the world?  Are we awake to it?  Are we listening?  How do we figure that out?

 

And Tuck has upped the ante here.  He has privately asked me how my work is a form of worship?  In other words, how am I honoring God when I am working?  How is my behavior different than someone who is not a believer?  How am I modeling good Christian ethics, even when I am working?

 

 

I have long been obsessed with C.S. Lewis.  Both of my children grew up listening to The Chronicles of Narnia.  I really mean his other works about the problems of evil and suffering in the world.  As a child and throughout my adult life I have been perplexed by a world that can accept human suffering on so large a scale. 

 

The problems we faced in the 1960’s were described as political problems, so it felt correct for me to go into the political world.   Even as a child, I turned our dinner table into political discourse.  I loved campaigns from the start.  I was eventually drawn toward studying the pulse of the people.  I studied public policy in graduate school and I ended up becoming a public opinion pollster. 

 

I can honestly say that I enjoy what I do.  My task it to remind others of what actual people are going through in their daily lives.  Most of the time in this country, but also abroad.  Most of the time with elected officials, but with other groups, companies and foundations as well.

 

But I cannot say that this type of work has not challenged my faith in very real ways at times.  I have seen the ugly side of politics.  I have seen those entrusted with power turn their back on those they were elected to represent and to care for – and they almost always have an excuse.  But more times than not I have witnessed humble and sincere public servants do their best in bad situations.  I still think goodness can outshine the bad – but only if we take responsibility and hold others accountable.

 

Perhaps more importantly, I think truth almost always comes to light in the end.  God loves truth. 

 

Here is a check list of things that I think help me steer toward the light.  Am I meeting the mark?  No way.  I am way short of what God should expect of me.  Absolutely.

 

Listen.  Everyone has something to teach you.  Your job is to figure out what it is.  This will lead to liking others and appreciating them.  Listening to others is the only way to understand what is happening around you and to meet the needs of others. 

 

Live what you believe.  When someone asks you what your opinion of the death penalty is, tell them why you oppose it – even when you know they voted for it. 

 

This is another way of saying prioritize God in your life.    And that will lead to talking about your own faith journey with others, which God expects us all to do.

 

Tell the truth.  Do it when it is unpopular.  Again, God loves the truth.  When political aides fail to tell their bosses the truth, we end up with public policy that hurts people.

 

Force those around you to think.  God gave us brains for a reason.  Any public policy that leads to death or ignores bad outcomes is bad.  That is not rocket science but it passes for it in Washington DC. 

 

Make people explain.  Always ask why.   Most people don’t have reasons for why they act the way they do, but if they are forced to explain, they often change their behavior. 

 

But that also means you should tell people “why.”  More often than not, we have the same goals and desires as others.  Sometimes the difference between us is only our judgement on the best way to get there.  Sorry, but I don’t think compromise is a bad word.  It has kept me happily married for 20 years.

 

Push ethical behavior.  Try just asking people what decision they would make if they had to explain it to their own Mother.  Trust that they will do so, but verify when you can. 

 

Learn how to pray.  Give yourself lessons and practice.  Get someone to teach you.  This is going to get you through the rough patches.  This will help you to understand that God always has your back. 

 

If someone asks for help, help them.  And then don’t make a big deal about it.  Don’t expect anything in return.  If you don’t feel real joy from that, then you need to pray more.

 

God wants us to love each other.  If you love someone, be sure to tell them.  Your wife will understand that you love other people and she will get used to it.  I am a kisser.  My son understands this and he even lets me do it in public now.

 

Finally, feel the joy.  This is my biggest failure.  I am a worrier and it is hard for me to be in the moment.  When I come into St. Luke’s Church, I feel the joy…But I also feel the responsibility, as all of us should.

 

Life is about people and the connections we make with each other.  When we are gone, no one will care about the money we made or the toys we played with.  We live on in the way that we have touched each other’s lives and made each other feel and taken care of each other.

It has taken me most of my adult life to get a remote understanding of what God expects of me and I am still on a journey that I do not fully understand.

 

I told my daughter the other day that I have lots of jobs.  My first job is to take care of her, her brother and her mother – and then every other relative no matter how distant.  My second job is to take care of the people at work, both the clients and the people who work with me – and their families.  My third job is to take care of St. Luke’s and all the people who call this building home. 

 

What I did not tell her, but expect that she will understand some day, is that God expects us all to take care of one another.  What I did tell her is that God expects us to worship Him alone and then love each other as we love ourselves.  And then I might have asked her if she had done her homework.

 

Amen.

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Easter 7 Meredith Maple

This week’s gospel got me thinking about the secular things in our lives that we glorify.  For instance, a young child might glorify their parents, super heroes, Disney princesses, and whatever the new cool TV characters are.  Teenagers might glorify their friends, getting to drive, and their cell phones.  In our increasingly secular society, we glorify secular things more and more.  We glorify sports stars, actors, musicians, and even politicians.  I made a list of the secular things I glorify, they include: Zac Brown and his band, all of the Nationals players, the entire sport of gymnastics, and of course dogs, any dog anywhere!  These are some of the things that in my mind can’t do wrong, I put them on pedestals, they are perfect.  Ok, maybe you’ll hear me accuse the Nationals of not being perfect, but I still love them!  These things are pretty benign, they aren’t really controversial, unless you’re a Braves fan.  But what happens when someone glorifies something dangerous?  Or what happens when these things we glorify become more important than our faith?  What if what we glorify is in direct opposition of what Jesus would glorify?  When we glorify ordinary things, we need to evaluate if it is at the expense of glorifying God.

In this last week of Easter, we hear what is often called the “High Priestly Prayer.”  This comes before Jesus’ arrest and execution.  In the Gospel of John, it is part of what is called the “Farewell Discourse.”  Chapters 13 through 17 are Jesus’ goodbye messages to his disciples, and this reading from today occurs right at the end of this speech. 

You have to imagine how intimate of a setting this was, they weren’t out in public, they were sitting around the table together after sharing a meal.  Jesus has just explained what is to come, he has given them the new commandment to love one another, he’s given his disciples some insights, and then he turns his conversation to the Father.  Jesus, speaking to the father, proclaims that “the hour has come.”  The concept of “the hour” is mentioned many times throughout John’s gospel.  Throughout the gospel, Jesus refers to an hour coming when something will happen, and things don’t happen to him, such as being arrested, because that hour hasn’t come yet.  So, Jesus proclaiming that the hour is now here is very important.  Jesus is ready to face his fate on the cross, and he uses this moment to address the father and talk about his work being completed.  Here we hear one of Jesus’ most direct explanations of faith.  He says: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  Jesus isn’t known for being very direct, he loves metaphors, but he is very direct here: To know God is eternal life.  So, what is it to know God?

Here we move from the extremely simple concept that knowing God is eternal life to the extremely complex concept of trying to figure out what this means?  How do we know if we truly know God?  Does baptism mean we know God?  Does reading the bible mean we know God?  Does praying mean we know God?  Does going to church mean that we know God?  How do we know that we are doing enough to know God?  It’s complicated!  I would say that all those things add to our knowledge and relationship with God: baptism, scripture, prayer, and worship. 

 

Yesterday I saw a funny little video on Facebook: someone pulls their car up to a shopping cart in a target parking lot, the cart is in the middle of the driveway.  They roll their window down just enough to grab the cart, and they drive to the cart rack pulling the cart along.  When they get to the cart rack, you wonder how they are going to get the cart in, or are they just going to leave it there.  Then the door opens, and someone dressed as Jesus gets out and pushes the cart in.  The caption read: “What would Jesus do?”  The whole “What would Jesus do,” concept might seem silly, but it is something that might be worth taking seriously, because I think that is one of the elements of truly knowing God.  When we evaluate our actions through the lens of what Jesus’ action might have been, we grow our relationship with God.  So yeah, Jesus probably wouldn’t leave his shopping cart in the middle of the parking lot. 

What else would Jesus do or not do?  In discussing this with some friends recently, someone said: “well how can we know what Jesus would do?”  Fair question, but the answer to me is simple: we can look at Jesus’ actions through his life, and pretty easily figure out what Jesus would do.  Jesus spent his time with people in the margins of society.  He ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.  He fought back to the controlling religious elite.  He cared for the sick and poor.  So, would Jesus support refusing to help refugees, we can pretty much guess that he wouldn’t be ok with that.  Would he be ok with programs and budgets that take away support to the elderly and poor, no he probably wouldn’t.

This gets us back to the concept of what we glorify.  Jesus is asking the Father to glorify him, that his hour has come and he is ready to be glorified.  Are we truly glorifying God the way we should?  Or are we glorifying those ordinary, secular things above God?  Through our secular glorification, are we truly knowing God?

It is ok to glorify secular things, as long as we don’t do it at the expense of our relationship with God.  I challenge you to truly think about what Jesus would do, what would Jesus glorify?  As we move from Easter into Pentecost, we reflect back on 50 days spent glorifying God.  Jesus’ hour came, we have journeyed with him to the cross, the grave, and the ascension.  How will we glorify God the other 315 days?  How will you glorify God?

 

Amen.

 

We all need help believing

Our Gospel text this morning is unique in that it gives us an easy way to enter into the narrative. We are with Nicodemus as he approaches Jesus in the cover of darkness and we stand with him as he tells Jesus that he knows he is “a teacher who has come from God.” And we are there when he asks “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  And we are with Nicodemus as he asks Jesus “How can these things be?”  But then Nicodemus is gone from the passage and we are left alone facing Jesus as he explains how these things can be. Nicodemus fades and we find ourselves in an encounter with Jesus.

         And we are in an encounter with a Jesus who has an invitation for us. An invitation not just for Nicodemus but for us too. Jesus uses this intriguing metaphor of birth in his invitation for us to be born from above. It is intriguing because we know that you can only be born once. As Nicodemus points out, a person cannot re-enter their mothers’ womb. So what does Jesus mean? Jesus means that God can change our lives. This metaphor of birth indicates that God is willing to do the hard work in re-creating us as Christians. But we have to let him do this work, we have to respond to God’s invitation to be born again in the Spirit.

         And we know this isn’t easy. And we know this because there are other reasons why we find ourselves standing next to Nicodemus in this scene. We have a few things in common with him. He is a leader in his faith community, just as many of you are. Nicodemus, a Jewish leader, a Pharisee, is drawn to Jesus. But he isn’t ready to be public about his interest in Jesus. The Gospel specifically says that “he came to Jesus by night.” Nicodemus needs the cover of darkness to asks Jesus his questions. He wants to keep his curiosity about Jesus a secret and he wants to keep it separate from the rest of his life.

         This is something we can all relate to. It is not trendy to be a mainline Protestant these days. If you don’t already think this, I would invite you to tell a stranger in an elevator or at a party that you are an Episcopal priest. The responses are varied, but you never get, “Oh how cool!” Because it isn’t so popular anymore and because we live in a pluralistic world, we tend to keep faith in its own realm. We do this to respect the different views of our colleagues and friends. We do this to keep up cultural norms. So even if we are devout believers, we often keep God talk to our church lives. And this kind of devotion is OK. Nicodemus does believe even if keeps it a secret. So private faith is still genuine, it isn’t broken. It just isn’t complete. There is room still to grow. Hence Jesus’s invitation to Nicodemus and us, to allow the Spirit to work in us and create a bigger faith. A faith that spills out of our church lives and into the rest of our lives.

Now you may be wondering what happened to Nicodemus. Did he take his faith public? Did he let the Spirit make his faith new? Nicodemus does in fact appear two more times in the Gospel of John. In chapter 7, it appears as though he is taking Jesus’ side in an argument with the Pharisees. But his advocacy for Jesus is lukewarm. He also appears at the end of the Gospel. Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea with the burial of Jesus by bringing burial spices. Neither of these scenes are conclusive as to the state of his faith in faith in Jesus. We do not know if Nicodemus accepted Christ’s invitation to be born again from above. This ambiguity suggests that believing is hard. Even God will do the work, we have to let him in.

         We have to give God a chance to help us be born from above. So I have decided that my Lenten prayer will be this, God please be at work in my life. I am so eager to control and organize every part of my life that I’m not sure there is always room for God to be at work. I’m not sure where he would fit into my daily calendar. So please invite God to do the work of making your faith bigger. Accept the invitation that Jesus offers to Nicodemus and to us, because believing is hard work and we need help. Amen.

          

 

 

Mountains

            There is something special about mountains. I learned this when I was 18 and in my first week of college at Sewanee, which is on top of a mountain. The chaplain gave a long sermon during which I was very distracted, since I was sitting near all my new classmates. But I did catch some of it, and what I caught was that mountains are a thin space. A space where heaven and earth comingle, where humanity and divinity collide. He said that for many, Sewanee was a thin space. This idea of mountains being a thin space was something that I held dear from then on. Because there really is something special about mountains.

            We hear this in our reading from Exodus this morning and our Gospel from Matthew. Something happens on both those mountains that couldn’t happen on the ground below. God appears to Moses on the mountain in a way that he couldn’t appear to him anywhere else. Moses entered the cloud on the mountain and saw the glory of the Lord. In the Gospel, Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured into his full divinity on the mountain. God gave these people signs on the mountain so that they might believe.

This idea of mountains being thin spaces where God can speak to us has been around for awhile. In the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis has Aslan, his alternative version of Christ, remind us of this at the end of The Silver Chair. “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters.”

            We need these mountaintop moments or signs to help us survive when we are in the valleys looking up at the mountains. God prepares us in these transforming experiences for the world below. The world that brings us loss and sadness. These moments may not necessarily happen for us on mountains, but in classrooms, offices, kitchens or even the car – they can happen where we make space for God to be present. Perhaps you can bring to mind your own mountaintop moment. A moment so transforming that it helps you believe even when you are in the thickness of Narnia.

            I often think of my time at Sewanee when I need to be reassured of God’s presence. In particular, I think of a swing set that offers the perfect view of the sun setting in the evening. The Chaplain was right, Sewanee could be a thin place if you let it be one. It is certainly the setting of many of my mountain top moments. Moments that I can hold on to when things on earth are hard to swallow.

            Peter, James and John must have held on to their vision of Christ’s transfiguration in the days following His death. The apostles literally hid themselves away in the fear and sadness following Christ’s death. The Transfiguration must have given Peter, James and John the courage to see towards the Resurrection. They must have known that Christ’s death was not the end. The vision they received on the mountain gave them the light to see in the darkness.

            We need these mountaintop moments and our memories of thin spaces because life is full of valleys and mountains. I was reminded of this yesterday during our Renewal Works small group discussion. The tough things in life, the time in the valley were often what brought us back to the mountain. All of our spiritual journeys have definite highs and lows.

            And this is what social research is telling us too. Resiliency has been singled out as important character trait for success in life. Resilient people have better health outcomes in general and are able to handle life’s blows with grace. And this isn’t because resilient people are somehow special. It is because they have experienced loss or trauma, they have been in the valley. They have allowed themselves to be sad, but then they try to get back up and eventually they do. You have to experience hopelessness to know hope.

            God can give us resiliency. He can give us mountaintop moments to sustain us in the valleys of life. The Transfiguration tells us that there nothing we can do to stop joy or sorrow. God’s love and light will find us and raise us to a mountain top. And sorrow will surely find us all too. The only question mark here is what role will we give to God in this cycle. Will we give watch for the chance to climb the mountain? Will we listen while we are there? Let God lead you up a mountain and show you Christ transformed, so that you have something to hold onto when you find yourself back in the valley. Amen.

 

Call to Adventure

I am not particularly comfortable with preaching on current events. I prefer to stick to my own take of the morning’s Gospel reading. So I was thrilled that my maternity leave overlapped with our latest Presidential election as well as many other challenging situations. I not so secretly thought, whew! I’m off the hook for this one. So I found it ironic that my name appeared on the preaching Rota for the Sunday after the inauguration. Touche. I guess I am not totally off the hook, because I think I would be remiss to ignore the events of this weekend this morning.

         However you feel about our most recent election and our new President, the last few months have likely made you somewhat uncomfortable. Our 24/7 news loop has been busier than ever. I rarely talk to anyone these days who doesn’t ask me if I have heard the latest on the new cabinet or the world refugee crisis or the most recent terrorist attack. Much of the news of the last year has been so upsetting that social media has been full of jokes about 2016 being the worst year ever. My point is that the last few months haven’t been the most cheerful news-wise.  

         So while I’m not sure that I agree that 2016 was the worst year ever it has certainly been an uncomfortable time for many people. So what can we do in this uncomfortable place? We could pretend that we aren’t uncomfortable. Or we could decide that this place of discomfort is our “call to adventure.”

         In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has traveled to Galilee after learning that John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus surely knows that this isn’t good news for him. If John has been arrested, Jesus’ own arrest cannot be far away. I would imagine Jesus was a little uneasy, but He moves ahead with his ministry of preaching and gathering disciples. He sees two brothers fishing, Simon Peter and Andrew, and he says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” They immediately drop their nets and follow him. He then sees two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John and calls to them in the same way. Again they immediately drop everything and follow him. This abrupt call to ministry is clearly the beginning of something.

         Some of you may have heard of Joseph Campbell who did some important work on the archetypal stories found in cultures around the world. His notion of the hero’s journey can be applied to many of our beloved books and of course matches the story of Christ in many ways. Campbell spoke of the beginning of things as the “call to adventure.” Moments like Jesus’ call to these fisherman can best be described as a “call to adventure.” Moments like this suggest “that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity to a zone unknown.”[1] All of us will face a moment like this; a moment that challenges our spiritual center of gravity. So perhaps right now is your moment, your call to adventure. Maybe our feelings of discomfort will send us on journeys that will move our own story to a larger context. 

         While thinking of this call to adventure, I thought of the author Madeline L’Engle’s words on creation. “If I affirm that the universe was created by a power of love, and that all creation is good, I am not proclaiming safety. Safety was never part of the promise. Creativity, yes; safety, no. All creativity is dangerous…To write a story or paint a picture is to risk failure. To love someone is to risk that you may not be loved in return, or that the love will die. But love is worth that risk, and so is birth, its fulfillment.”[2]

With this in mind, I pray that we take on the risk of creation, that we answer our call to adventure. Whatever this looks like to you. This is time to write a book, plant the garden for spring, make a new friend, get ordained, start school again, snuggle with your baby, join a cause, finish up your degree, drive kids to soccer, join a choir, adopt a pet, start a group, or pray without ceasing.

Do not be afraid. Take up the risk of creation and answer your own call to adventure. Amen.

 

 

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949; reprint, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 58.

[2] http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/risk-of-birth-2016

Christmas Eve ~ Blow Every Trumpet, Play Every Horn

       Now the excitement and expectation for Christmas can run pretty high on Christmas Eve right? I was reminded of these expectations while watching one of my all time favorite Christmas movies, the 1989 classic National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Has anyone seen this movie? In one classic scene, Clark and his wife Ellen are talking shortly before their families arrive for the holiday. Ellen expresses some concerns that it will be stressful to have everyone in the house together. She suggests maybe they could change their plans and stay somewhere else. But Clark says no that he wants to have an old fashioned family Christmas at their home. Ellen then says “You set standards that no family activity can live up to.” Clark responds; “When have I ever done that?” And of course we all know that he always does that. And many of us do this too, I know that I certainly do.

         So it can be hard to remember what we celebrate at Christmas in the midst of all these expectations. What are we celebrating tonight besides the vacation time, delicious food and gifts? Tonight we celebrate that God came to earth as a baby. This is the most amazing gift of all. It is such an amazing that is hard to understand. How could God be a tiny baby?

Another question you might have tonight is what did we do to deserve having God come to earth to be with us as a tiny baby? Then angel praises God and tells us that Jesus brings peace on earth to those whom He favors. What did we do to deserve the peace that Jesus brings?

The best way to find the answers to these two questions is to enter into the story and imagine that we are a part of the story. If we are wondering How God be a tiny baby? And we did to deserve the peace this baby brings? Then we have to dive in and see where we fit into the story. Are we Mary? Joseph? A shepherd? Or an angel? Whose role in this story do you relate to? They each have an important part to play in the story of Christmas. Mary says yes to God and welcomes a child into her life, knowing that it will change everything forever. Joseph trusts in God’s plan and takes care of Mary and Jesus. The shepherds were the first to witness to the good news of Christ’s birth. The angels were chosen to tell the shepherds and everyone else the Christmas story. Depending on where you are in life right now, you might identify with a different role in the story.

I know that this year I identify with Mary because I welcomed my own first-born son just a few months ago. Becoming a mother has totally changed my perspective on Christmas. It has helped me understand the first big question of Christmas - How could God come to earth as a baby? Having this little baby in my life helps me understand how God could come to earth as a baby because I see so much of God’s perfect creation in this sweet child. He has helped me learn that God is in every child and every person. Becoming a mother has also helped me understand the second big question of Christmas – what did we do to deserve the Christ child? I can tell you that we have done nothing to deserve this gift. This gift was freely given of God’s graciousness just as I did nothing to deserve the privilege of having my own sweet child.

         I first connected the birth of my own son to the birth of Christ while reading James the book “On the Night You Were Born.” Have any of you read this book or had it read to you? In this book, the author describes how the world stood still to note the birth of a baby one night. And it sounds a lot the Christmas story but it is also the story of every baby. This is how we should celebrate the birth of Jesus and of every person.

Now I would like to share this story with you. Listen closely for your role in the story. The wind and the rain are like the angels in the Christmas story. The polar bears, geese and ladybugs are just like the shepherds. The person reading the story might be like Mary or Joseph. And I know that everyone listening to the story is just like Jesus. So listen close…

On the night you were born,
The moon smiled with such wonder
That the stars peeked in to see you
And the night wind whispered,
“Life will never be the same.”
Because there had never been anyone like you…ever in the world.
So enchanted with you were the wind and the rain
That they whispered the sound of your wonderful name.
It sailed through the farmland
High on the breeze…
Over the ocean…
And through the trees…
Until everyone heard it
And everyone knew
Of the one and only ever you.
Not once had there been such eyes,
Such a nose,
Such silly, wiggly, wonderful toes.
When the polar bears heard,
They danced until dawn.
From faraway places,
The geese flew home.
The moon stayed up until
Morning next day.
And none of the ladybugs flew away.
So whenever you doubt just how special you are
And you wonder who loves you, how much and how far,
Listen for geese honking high in the sky.
(They’re singing a song to remember you by.)
Or notice the bears asleep at the zoo.
(It’s because they’ve been dancing all night for you!)
Or drift off to sleep to the sound of the wind.
(Listen closely…it’s whispering your name again!)
If the moon stays up until morning one day,
Or a ladybug lands and decides to stay,
Or a little bird sits at your window awhile,
It’s because they’re all hoping to see you smile…
For never before in story or rhyme
(not even once upon a time)
Has the world ever known a you, my friend,
And it never will, not ever again…
Heaven blew every trumpet
And played every horn
On the wonderful, marvelous
Night you were born.

We are the ones who hear this good news of great joy. We are the ones who receive the gift of the Christ child. So let us blow every trumpet and play every horn to celebrate this night when Jesus was born. Amen.

 

St. Luke's homily 7-24-16 – six levels of prayer . . . the Rev'd Jonathan Bryan

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

 

A warm good morning to you all – and hearty thanks to Grace for inviting me to preach this morning.

 

In our Gospel passage, St. Luke reports that Jesus' disciples said, "Lord, teach us to pray." We too want to learn more of how to pray.

 

For we are being saturated with bad news, so much bad news. We yearn for good news, we yearn to live good news.

 

I have some suggestions.

 

First, a theological foundation. We live in this secular world, a material, everyday, world filled with good news and bad news. But we also inhabit another world, a transcendent world beyond this secular world. We live in the world of the living Christ, the loving Christ, the risen Christ.

 

In our secular world, what goes up must come down. In the transcendent world of the living Christ, what goes down must come up.

 

This paradox comes from the basic biblical narrative. Jesus came from God to live among us. That's Christmas. We crucified Jesus and Jesus died, dead. That's Good Friday. God resurrected the living Christ, still present among us. That's Easter Sunday.

 

What went down came up. Crucifixion – down to death – came up to resurrected life.

 

Our personal crucifixional events go down. Our personal resurrectional events come up. In the transcendent world of the living Christ, what goes down must come up.

 

Our prayers express that foundational truth. Our prayers strive to make that truth real in our lives.

 

Jesus' words and Jesus' life teach us to pray in God's transcendent world. We connect with God's transcendent world by connecting with God in our prayers.

 

Here are six levels of prayer.

 

First, the level of praying for help. Help me, God. This is our foxhole prayer. We pray for a certain outcome, a certain solution.

 

Little Johnnie's mom had a baby girl. Little Johnnie said his prayers: "Thank you God for my baby sister. But what I prayed for was a pony."

Perhaps we want to pray in more depth than little Johnnie's outcome prayer. So we go to the second level of prayer – thanks, gratitude. "Dear God, I am grateful for my life, for my friends, for all that goes well in my life." That is good relationship, to appreciate what's well and good. Say thank you.

 

The third level of prayer becomes more challenging. We admit what we have done wrong and failed to do right. It's our prayer of confession. It requires also our prayer of forgiveness for our failures and wrongdoings. "Forgive us our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us."

 

Well – if we pray these first three levels, we are making some spiritual progress. We're ready to pray for ourselves.

 

We pray for strength, for wisdom, for sound decisions, for courage, for faithfulness, for commitment. That's our fourth level of prayer, called petition. These petitions for our own well-being prepare us for our fifth level of prayer.

 

The fifth level of prayer is for other people, intercession. We intercede with God for their well-being. We pray for healing, for wholeness, for reconciliation, for wellness, for peace. We voice these prayers – in words – for the well-being of others.

 

Now, then, we come to the ultimate prayer – our actions, our deeds, what we actually do for others. We intercede for others by living for others. We strive to improve the lives of our neighbors and those we love by doing what we can for them. We live lives of service. We see our living as giving ourselves for the well-being of the world. Our jobs become our ministries. Our relationships become our ministries. We give our time, our talent, and our treasure for the benefit of others.

 

Our lives become our prayers. Our prayers become our lives. This puts life on a different plane. We live for others, loving our neighbors as ourselves.

 

Jesus has taught us and continues to teach us this: our sacrificial life is our prayer connecting us to God.

 

Let us pray. Strengthen us, O Lord, to give thanks, to live lives of gratitude. Give us courage to confess our brokenness and reconcile our relationships. Make us determined to live lives of love for others, working for the benefit of our worlds. And all this we ask through Christ our living Lord. Amen.

Mary or Martha?

         When our parish administrator, Sue, saw what the Gospel was for this Sunday, she remarked to me that she had heard many sermons on this Gospel throughout her life and that they either made her feel really bad about herself or really good about herself. I laughed because that sounds just about right to me. This is a passage that can be turned in a few different ways. And it has a history of being used negatively. For a long time this story of Martha and Mary from Luke’s Gospel was used to value the contemplative life over the active life. A quiet life of prayer and listening was held over a life of active work. This story has also been used to say that Luke and the early church community didn’t want women in active ministry because Jesus calls Martha away from her work. These interpreters see that Jesus is pulling Martha away from an active role to a more passive role of listening and take this to mean that Jesus intended a more passive role for women in the church.

            Not surprisingly, I don’t buy into either of these interpretations. So hopefully this sermon won’t make anyone feel bad about themselves and their Martha/Mary dichotomy. Because that is what traditional interpretations of this passage have done. It has divided disciples into Martha’s or Mary’s and it has caused people to see their own identities as split.

As I wrote in the weekly enews note, I personally am very prone to this identity split. This Mary/Martha split in my identity began in my childhood. Whenever my parents hosted dinner parties I would be in the kitchen doing dishes while my sister spent time with our guests. I would often complain to my mother about this unfair setup, but she never corrected my sister, and jokingly dubbed me Martha. So for much of our childhood, the joke was that I was Martha and she was Mary. And this was pretty accurate, whenever there was something to be done, I just did it and she would not. To this day when something is spilled on the floor, my sister looks at me, expecting me to clean it up. No joke. She has this look like what are you going to do about this mess? Perhaps some of you can relate to this. I imagine that I am not the only person to have a sibling like that.

           As an adult I have felt less like the poster child for Martha-ness. But I still have some Martha tendencies. To do lists loom large in my mind. I really like getting things done and crossing things off the list. My husband calls this my obsession with logistics. And it’s true I am obsessed with logistics; sometimes to the point where logistics can distract me from all the good stuff that is going on.   

           So what is the good news in this Gospel for someone like me, who is obsessed with logistics and to do lists. The good news is that this is OK, what I am doing is OK. I believe this Gospel is calling us to merge our Martha and Mary tendencies. I think it is saying it’s ok to be obsessed with to-do lists and quiet time. It’s telling us that we can be called to both the active and contemplative life. I think this is the true message found in this Gospel text. While the English version of this Gospel reads that “Mary has chosen the better part,” a better translation of the Greek word is “good.” So Mary has chosen the good but not better part. This translation nuance immediately moves us away from a Mary/Martha dichotomy. Once we move away from this dichotomy we might be able to see the whole story differently.

            If we try to take a different perspective on the story, it’s good to start at the beginning. When Jesus arrives at their house Martha begins to prepare him a meal. This is a perfectly acceptable response; hospitality is an important tradition. While Martha is cooking, Mary gives their guest her undivided attention and listens to him. This too is a perfectly good thing to do. We all know that listening to someone carefully is a way of showing them respect. The issue comes when Martha feels like she has been abandoned to deal with everything by herself while her sister has all the fun.  I imagine that Martha was banging around the pots and pans in an attempt to get her sisters’ attention. Mary probably didn’t notice, but I bet Jesus did. I would even guess that he wasn’t surprised by her outburst at all. He saw it coming. So when Martha asks "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? I bet Jesus was smiling. Instead of running to her aid, Jesus says "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” I bet Martha found this infuriating! She asked for help but was instead scolded. This was definitely not what she had in mind. But what was Jesus scolding? Was he scolding her work in kitchen or her worry and distraction? What if we believed that Jesus was not scolding “Busy Martha” but “Worried and Distracted Martha.”?[1] Her fault lies not in being active but in the anxiety and worry she has built up for herself over this meal. Her frustration has spread not only to her sister but to their honored guest as well.

            Martha lost sight of the purpose of her busyness and Jesus gently asked her to refocus. He points out that Mary is doing a good thing, she is connecting with God. This connection feeds her and allows her to do her own work. What if Jesus’ comment to Mary was more of a call to reevaluate than a scolding? I believe the story of Mary and Martha is really a plea from the Lord to focus on him. Perhaps we need to give Him some of our undivided attention, even if we have forgotten what undivided attention feels like. If we give him some of our undivided attention, maybe some of His peace will flow to all of our busyness. Maybe this attention to the Lord will help us unify our identities as both Mary’s and Martha’s. Because I believe that we are each a little bit Mary and Martha and that is perfectly OK. Amen.

 

[1] Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, Pg. 265.

Presence of Christ

My family really likes to rank things. After family vacations we spent time ranking the top 3 meals, the best day of the trip or the 3 most interesting things we saw. This also eventually evolved into ranking family members. Who was the most annoying family member at the moment? Or the least helpful? We would often tease one another that someone was working being #1 most annoying or least helpful 1family member. It was something of a game. (Also my family is here this morning, so I encourage you to find them after church and tease them about this ranking habit.) Even though I sometimes resisted the ranking game, I will admit that this interest in ranking has stuck with me.

In my New Testament class, our professor asked us which Gospel we preferred after we finished studying all the Gospels. I wasn’t sure exactly which Gospel was #1, but I was definitely sure which Gospel was #4. That would be John. I realize that Gospel ranking seems like something Jesus would not be too keen on, but I can’t help it. Something about the style of John’s Gospel immediately confuses me. It always since to start with the this is in that, and that is really this, with some bread of life and a shepherd thrown in.

But I was surprised to find that this week’s reading from John actually spoke to me. It took me awhile to take it apart and understand it, but it was worth the effort. I soon realized that this was a prayer to God from Jesus. A quick consultation of a commentary confirmed this for me. And it’s such a beautiful prayer. You can sense the relationship between Jesus and His Father in the prayer. His has absolute confidence in Him and his ability to make things happen. It’s also bittersweet because Jesus says this prayer because he knows that he is leaving the world and his earthly ministry behind. He prays for His disciples that their work may reflect the one they serve. He prays for those who will come to believe through His disciples. He prays that all believers in Christ may be a part of God the way He is a part of God.

The final piece of this passage is the most powerful for me. Jesus prays "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them." For me this translates to, “God you have loved me so well, please let those I have served know that the love I gave them comes from you.” And this spoke to me so strongly because I have spent some time this week reflecting on the time I had with our beloved parishioner Nancy Posey before she died last week. I went to visit her in a hospice center along with Tom Hargrove and her dog. It was a special moment, one of those moments you don’t forget easily. Nancy could barely speak or drink any water. But she wanted us there, and she wanted communion and she wanted to be anointed with oil. She also just wanted to look at us and smile and hold hands. As I was driving home, I thought about what a heavy responsibility it is to try to be the presence of Christ to someone as they are dying. I prayed that Nancy felt Christ’s love and protection through our presence in the room with her. In fact, I have kept praying this. How could anyone be good enough to be the presence of Christ to someone else? But to read in John’s Gospel that Jesus prayed the kind of same prayer was a big comfort. Jesus too prayed that God’s love be felt through his own love.  

It has since occurred to me that this might be the true prayer of Christianity. Shouldn’t we be always be praying that our life and actions reflect the love of Christ to others? Shouldn’t we pray that what we do will bring others to believe in God?

I see this desire to reflect Christ in human action in our reading from Acts this morning too. Paul and Silas know that the jailer would be killed if all his prisoners escaped during his watch. So when the earthquake hits and all the doors of the prison open, they remain there with the other prisoners. When the jailer sees that the doors are wide open, he is about to kill himself since he has failed in his duty. But when he sees that the prisoners are all there and that he is saved, he immediately knows that these are not ordinary prisoners. In fact, the jailer falls down before Pail and Silas and asks how he can be saved since he knows that men who acted so generously will know the way to salvation. So the jailer and his family become Christians because of the generous actions of Paul and Silas. Paul and Silas were able to be the presence of Christ to this jailer and he came to believe in Jesus through them.

This strikes me as a direct answer to Jesus’ prayer in our reading from John. Jesus prayed that his disciples would share the love He had given them with others. He prayed that this love would draw others to belief in God. And we see this in this story from Acts. And we see it from moments in our lives. I am sure that if we think about it we can all remember a moment when we showed the love of Christ to another. And this moment doesn’t need to be as dramatic as the moment I shared earlier with Nancy it could be something very mundane. Perhaps your life is full of these moments and you never realized it before. Because sometimes a revelation can come from a Gospel reading, even if it is from the 4th best Gospel. Amen. 

 

 

 

 

Doing strange things for a strange truth

            If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this morning’s readings, then you are not alone. We just went through a lot! We started with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. Then quickly moved to the Last Supper, Jesus’ prayer and anguish in the garden, to his betrayal by Judas and his arrest. From there we follow him to the high priests’ house, where we watch Peter follow at a distance and betray his Lord three times. Jesus is then questioned and mocked by the council and the crowd. The crowd decides that Pilate should question Jesus, so we watch as he is taken to him. Pilate sends Jesus to Herod who sends him back to Pilate. Pilate wishes to release the innocent Jesus but the crowd says no, “Crucify him.” And so we see Jesus be handed over to death. A man from the crowd, Simon of Cyrene, is ordered to carry Jesus’ cross for him. Then we see Jesus on the hill on his cross alongside two criminals. We watch them speak their final words to one another. Jesus asks for forgiveness for his accusers and then says “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." We hear the familiar line that the curtain in the temple was torn in two. Then the centurion declares Jesus to be innocent after his death. After all this, Joseph of Arimathea, a faithful Jew, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body so that he may bury it. The Galilean women who have followed Jesus watch where he is laid so that they might return. And then they rested on the Sabbath as commanded. PAUSE. So basically they waited, and this is where we are today. We are waiting for the next episode to unfold. And there is something about waiting that makes you re-think everything.

            This week when I thought through this story certain things began to sound very strange to me, even though I know the story well. And other parts are so familiar that they are immune to my deeming them strange. In much the same way that you don’t question certain parts of your childhood. For example, why wouldn’t you eat the same thing every single Monday night? These familiar and immune parts of the story shift to the back of mind. Like, of course Peter will deny Christ three times and then a cock will crow. Why wouldn’t there be a rooster there? The part of the story that has emerged from the overly familiar as being strange to me is that Jesus is innocent.

He is so innocent that both Herod and Pilate can’t find anything to accuse him of. And these two guys were not known for seeing the best in people. In fact, they send Jesus back and forth between each other hoping the other one will find something and take care of it. Finding no such luck, Pilate decides to release Jesus. But then the crowd condemns this innocent man. The crowds would rather have Barrabas, a known murderer, reenter their community than Jesus the innocent man. Now doesn’t this sound very strange? Would you prefer to have a murderer or a religious prophet as a neighbor? That seems like an obvious choice to me. But the strange decision is made; Jesus the innocent man will be crucified.

            After Jesus dies on the cross and the temple curtain is torn in two, the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” In Mark’s gospel he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” This is not quite the same comment. Luke is more concerned with Christ’s innocence than His messianic identity. Even the criminals crucified with Jesus see the injustice of his death commenting that, “we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Why is Luke highlighting the innocence of Jesus for us?

            Jesus was condemned and killed in this way because he was the only truly innocent person. This is a strange and uncomfortable fact. The idea that the only innocent man in the world died for us is a strange and uncomfortable foundation for our faith. But there it is. It is most definitely the foundation of our belief, which is why we go through the whirlwind drama of Jesus’ last days on earth every Holy Week. And perhaps this strange foundation is why being a Christian is a little bit strange.

            If being a Christian is a little bit strange, then the things that Christians do must be a little bit strange. When you reflect on the things that you do in your life, specifically because you are a practicing Christian they may surprise you. I spent some time thinking about just that this week. And what I came up with was surprising. The things that popped into my head most quickly were all the strange places that I have slept because of my Christian faith journey. Now this may be my theme because I started reflected on this as I tried to sleep on the floor in a random church office while chaperoning VIC HOP but there you are. I remembered the families that hosted my children’s choir in Tucson, AZ during a Chorister Festival. I thought of the time I stayed with a Hungarian family in Csurgo, Hungary near the Habitat for Humanity building site our youth group was helping with. I thought of the youth hostel in New York City where I stayed in college on an AIDS awareness trip. I thought of the cabins in Kanuga where I was a counselor. I also thought of the tents where I slept as a camp counselor (these were less happy memories.) I can still see the youth room couches where I slept during lock-ins at the church where I worked in Connecticut. I remember lots of different retreat centers where I stayed during discernment retreats, postulancy retreats and seminary class retreats. And the list goes on.

            For me, this list of strange accommodations represents all the time that I have done things outside of my comfort zone (because I really like sleeping in my own bed) because I felt called to act on my faith in some way. I would never have gone of any of these trips or done any of these things if I wasn’t a Christian. And this is what I mean when I say that being a Christian is somewhat strange. Our faith calls us to do strange and wonderful things because we believe in one strange and wonderful thing. We believe that one truly innocent man died for us.

            So during this upcoming Holy Week ponder the strange truth that Christ, an innocent man died for you. And while you think about that, reflect on the strange things you do to honor that truth. Maybe you don’t have a list of unusual sleeping situations, but perhaps you can remember moments where you abandoned all your tasks to do something for someone else. Maybe you’ve made some inexplicable life choices based on your faith. Perhaps you’ve taken on friendships that wouldn’t have appealed to you if you weren’t a Christian. Whatever they are, I am sure you have done some strange things for Christ. And I pray that you will keep doing them this week and always. Amen.

 

A conversation

Moses keeps appearing in our lectionary on the weeks that I am assigned to preach so I decided that I just couldn’t ignore him this time. It’s time to talk about Moses. And in any case, this morning’s reading from Exodus is wonderful. Moses with the burning bush is an iconic image from our Bible. The story is so rich that different things strike me each time I read this passage. This time I was struck by the conversation between God and Moses. It isn’t a quick conversation with simple yes and no answers, but a drawn out back and forth. Their conversation actually extends further into the book of Exodus, but we will just focus on what we heard this morning.

To really focus on their conversation, I took out everything in the passage except for the dialogue and changed the wording. It reads like this:

"Moses, Moses!"

"Yes I’m here."

“Don’t get any closer! You are standing on Holy Ground. I am your God. I know my people are suffering and I have decided you are going to help me free them. How does that sound?”

“Well gee, I’d like to help, but I’m not sure that I’m qualified for the task.”

"I will be with you to help you.”

“OK but why will anyone follow me? Why will they believe that You sent me?”

"I am who I am." Tell them that 'I am has sent me to you.”

 

What strikes me about this particular conversation is that God is inviting Moses to respond. God wants a thoughtful response. Moses doesn’t just say Yes sir, he expresses his concerns and God addresses them. They speak almost as peers. God doesn’t say, “Hey Moses, your fear and self doubt is absurd, get over it and do what I say.” God listens and gives a real response. This kind of conversation is a real gift. Because God really responded to Moses, he can now go and do what God has asked of him.

This conversation between Moses and God reminded me of Brene Brown’s latest book “Rising Strong.” For those of you who aren’t familiar, Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston who has spent the past twelve years studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her groundbreaking research has been featured all over, and her 2010 TedTalk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the top ten most viewed TED talks. She also happens to be an Episcopalian. In “Rising Strong” Brene shares a story about a conversation between  herself and her husband.          

One summer, she and her husband Steve took a vacation with their kids near a lake in the Hill Country of Texas. One morning the two of them go for a swim in the lake, and feeling inspired by the moment Brene says something sweet to her husband.

"I'm so glad we decided to do this together," she says. "It's beautiful out here." 

Brene was hoping for an equally sweet response but instead he replied.

"Yeah, water's good."

Brene was embarrassed but tried again.

"This is so great," she said. "I love that we're doing this. I feel so close to you." 

This time all she got was a "Yep, good swim."

Brown was upset and remembers thinking, what is going on here?

Before they got out, she asked him to stop — saying that she kept trying to connect with him and he kept blowing her off. 

Then, instead of being aggressive and self-protective, she opted for being kind and responsive.

"I feel like you're blowing me off," she said, "and the story I'm making up is either you looked at me while I was swimming and thought, Man, she's getting old. She can't even swim freestyle anymore. Or you saw me and thought, She sure doesn't rock a Speedo like she did twenty-five years ago." 

After a little time, Steve replied. He explained that he didn’t mean to be distant but that he had been trying to fight off a panic attack the whole swim. 

He explained that the night before, he had a dream where he was with their kids on a raft when a speedboat came screaming toward them, and he had to pull all the children into the water so they wouldn't get killed by speedboat. He didn't even hear what Brene was saying to him while they swam; he was just trying to concentrate on his swimming and make it back to the dock.

Suddenly, it made sense to her: People on the lake do tend to get drunk on boats, and everybody who grows up around water hears about tragic boating accidents.

After a little more conversation, it became clear to both of them that they were stuck in their own stories and didn’t understand what was going on with the other person until they talked.

This story is so relatable. Instead of just getting mad at her husband, she tried to have a conversation about what was going on. She wanted to be heard and she wanted to hear her husband. This could have gone very differently. She could have blown up, been angry and stormed off. But instead they had a conversation. A conversation much like the one between Moses and God in our reading from Exodus, were questions and concerns are really heard and get real responses.

There is something holy in this type of conversation. In fact, last week when we went the church of the Epiphany in D.C., which hosts a free breakfast for 200 people every Sunday morning, with our J2A group, part of our training was how to have conversation with one of their guests. This seemed simplistic to me at first but then I realized that it is a huge deal. Having a conversation with someone means that you are acknowledging someone else’s humanity. The staff at Epiphany told us that 80% of Americans will never have a conversation with a homeless person. So these conversations that we had with the guests of Epiphany were important and holy.           

            So why are conversations so important and holy? Conversations are how we work together. God and Moses had to work together to save Israel. God could not do it alone, He had to work through Moses. This conversation from our reading this morning was the beginning of their working relationship. In the same vein, Brene and her husband needed to have a conversation to keep their marriage going. Our youth have to learn how to have conversations with people whose housing is insecure otherwise how can they help them?

            We have to make space in our lives for conversations like this. And more importantly, we have to make time in our lives for conversation with God. Prayer is our time to talk to God. And it doesn’t happen without us. We need to start the conversation. Amen.
 

 

 

 

 

Are we like the chief wine steward?

            I love the story of the miracle at the wedding in Cana. It is one of the most memorable moments in John’s gospel. It is also the inspiration of some of my favorite Jesus jokes. For example, have you heard the one where Jesus walks into a bar with the disciples, orders thirteen glasses of water and then just winks at the bartender? Beyond it’s possibilities for inspiring jokes, this miracle is vivid and relatable. There are two classic human themes for us to connect with. First, there is the recognizable scene of a wedding; certainly most of us have been to a wedding or two. While weddings were certainly different in Jesus’ time there are some elements that are the same. Most notably, weddings are still about families and hospitality.  While this wedding in Cana was likely 7 days long and not just one night, we can still imagine the sense of disaster a host might feel if they discovered they were out of wine at their child’s wedding.

            The second familiar theme in this miracle is the mother-son relationship. Or should I say the mother- adult son relationship. This miracle only occurs because of the encouragement of the mother of Jesus. She is not named in John’s Gospel yet she plays a pivotal role in Jesus’s first miracle. The gospel reads “When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” Jesus’ response to his mother is something of a stumbling block to me in appreciating this passage. I can’t help but feel that his response to his mother is rude. I understand that by saying “My hour has not yet come.” he means that it isn’t time to reveal His divine nature to the world. But the line “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” feels unnecessarily harsh. One commentary I consulted on this passage suggested that this phrasing is not harsh but meant to downplay the relationship between mother and son in favor of Jesus’ relationship to his heavenly father. The expression “what concern is that to you and me” and “woman” are “formulas of disengagement not rudeness.”[1]  It’s almost as if Jesus is embarrassed that his mother has asked him to do something like this and he wants to shake her off. This is something most of us can relate to. You should be able to enter this scene easily if your parents have ever embarrassed you or if your children have ever been embarrassed by you. And yet the mother of Jesus ignores his attempt to shake her off and tells the servants at the wedding“Do whatever he tells you.” And so Jesus performs his first miracle. Apparently not even Jesus could escape the direction of his mother.

But why is this miracle is so important? A miracle is really a sign that points beyond the act itself. In this case, the wine points to the truth that Jesus is Messiah. But it doesn’t seem that anyone really notices this miracle. Of course, Jesus’s mother noticed the miracle, as did his disciples, because we are told that they believed in him. The servants who drew the water must have known that Jesus made this wine appear, but they don’t tell anyone what they saw. They don’t even tell the chief steward who tastes the wine.  John tells us that “when the steward tasted the water that had become wine… he called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." And this is what catches my attention in this miracle. The chief steward recognizes that the wine is very good, but he does not know where it comes from. How often are we like that? We usually recognize the goodness around us but not the source. We are grateful for the gifts in our lives, but do we thank the source? I know that I sometimes forget who is responsible for all the wonderful things in my own life. It’s easy to see our families, careers or homes as something we worked for and not as a gift from God.

So what can we do to thank God for all the gifts he has given us? For starters we can let this gospel can remind us that the goodness we have received is a gift from God and we can praise God for all our gifts. After that we can return that goodness to God. One of the ways we can return our gifts to God is by sharing them with the church. We can share our time, talent and treasure with Saint Luke’s, as so many of us already do. Thankfully, we had a very successful annual pledge campaign this year. And now is the time of year we turn to the Endowment Fund. The Endowment is a way to grow what we can do with God’s gifts to us. I personally am excited that the income from the Endowment can be used for any creative ministry idea that we come up with. So let’s not be like the chief wine steward in this morning’s Gospel. Let us recognize and thank the source of all the goodness in our lives. Amen.

 

[1] Bartlett, David L., and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Vol. Year C Vol. 1. Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox, 2011. 263.

Christmas Light

Before I can truly begin this sermon, I must make a confession to you all. I have never been to church on Christmas day before. I’ve faithfully attended many Christmas Eve services, sometimes even 3 or 4 in one year but never a Christmas day service. So hats off to those of you who are here today, you may already know the truth of Christmas in a way I am just beginning to see. Because I’ve never been to church on Christmas morning, I did not know that the Gospel appointed by the lectionary is the prologue to John’s Gospel. I do of course know the reading well, it was one of the first things we learned in Seminary. But reading it on Christmas day has given it a fresh meaning for me.

            Last night we heard all about the birth of Jesus. We heard about Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and of course the baby Jesus in a manger. Last night had all the festivity and excitement that might accompany the birth of a new family member. Yet Christmas Eve is really the beginning and not the conclusion of Christmas. One commentary I read suggested that Christmas morning is much like the experience of new parents being left alone with their baby. All of the extended family members are gone, and the new parents realize that their life will never be the same. In my own life, Christmas morning reminds me of the feeling I had after our wedding was over and all the guests were gone but we hadn’t left for our trip yet. It also reminds me of a moment after my ordination when my family went out to the grocery store and I was left at home to think about what had just happened. Perhaps you can recall a similar moment in your own life? A time where you were left alone to ponder the significance of a major event, because that is where we are this morning.

On Christmas morning we are left alone with the baby Jesus to ponder what it all means. What does it mean for us to know that God took human form and came to live on earth? The prologue to John’s Gospel that we just heard helps us think about just that. One commentator suggests that this prologue is a “threshold poem” because it shows us how what was has “crossed over into becoming.”[1] In this case, John’s prologue moves us from the birth of Jesus Christ to the reality of the incarnation. We knew the same God before the birth of Christ, and we worshipped the same God. But now we know God differently, so we must worship God differently. The arrival of God incarnate or Jesus Christ profoundly changed our understanding of God. Now that we have celebrated the birth of Jesus, we must settle into the new reality that the Word became flesh and lived among us.

 

So what does life with God incarnate look like?

 

Life with a God incarnate must mean many things because John’s poetic prologue to his gospel gives us a broad vision of the work that Jesus came to earth to do. Christ is a part of creation and no part of creation exists without him. John concretely connects Jesus to the creation narrative found in Genesis. Jesus is a part of our beginning. But even more than this Jesus came to earth to be the light. In fact the word light appears 6 times in the reading. John really wants us to know that Christ’s birth brings light to the world.

What will this light do? Most of our associations with light are joyful and peaceful. Think of all the Christmas lights we see around our neighborhood. We believe that this light of Christ will bring joy, peace and love. Yet we know that light only exists because there is darkness, light is defined by the shadows. John’s gospel does not gloss over the existence of evil and darkness, but rather affirms that Christ’s light will prevail. The darkness of the world may threaten the light of Christ but it cannot extinguish it. As we think about our life with an incarnate God, we can think about the light of Christ and what places of darkness need His light. How can we share the light of Christ that has been given to us this Christmas?

            In his Christmas video, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, talks about what God came on earth to do. Bishop Curry explains that Jesus came to show us how to love, and how to make this world what God dreams it could be, not just the nightmare it sometimes is. This love is the creative work of God incarnate that we are called into. We are invited by our own births and baptisms to be a part of this creative work of loving. We are called to share the light of Christ with one another.

So ultimately, the message of God incarnate is one of love and hope. We hope that with the light of Christ we can love the world into the dream God has for us. Amen.

 

 

 

 

[1] “John,” in The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 445.

Come Holy Spirit Come!

As I told someone yesterday, John the Baptist has sort of become my Advent buzz kill. I don’t think any of us feel like being chastised by John the Baptist this morning. It is hard to hear John’s chilling call to repentance when our heads are full of Christmas preparations and our hearts are full of the image of baby Jesus in a manger. But this is life in the lectionary, so we must hear what John the Baptist is saying to us this morning.

John the Baptist is preaching to a crowd who thinks they know the answers because they are descendants of Abraham. But he tells them that it doesn’t matter who they come from, that even stones could be descended from Abraham. John assures them that the axe of judgment is waiting for everyone. His listeners are fearful of the impending judgment and ask John "What then should we do?" And John’s answers are surprisingly clear, rarely in the Bible do you get such a clear response. He tells everyone to share from their abundance, if you have two coats give away one. John tells the tax collectors to collect no more than the designated amount and he tells soldiers not to abuse their position of authority. And these instructions are all clear enough, but they aren’t quite the good news.

As the crowd ponders John’s advice to them, they begin to wonder if he could be the Messiah. Could he be the long expected savior of mankind? But he says no he is not the Messiah, but John assures that the Messiah is coming. And this Messiah can bring much more than a baptism of repentance, he will bring a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire. And this is our good news; that a Messiah is coming who brings the Holy Spirit and fire with him. And this sounds pretty good. Then John tells us that this Messiah has a “winnowing fork” in his hand that he will use to clear the threshing flow. And that He will separate the wheat from chaff, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Now I don’t know about you but that doesn’t sound too good. Nothing with unquenchable fire makes me feel much like rejoicing as our reading from Philippians suggests.

But after some research into these terms, I see it a bit differently. The chaff is the dry, scaly protective casings of the seeds of grain. The grain cannot be used with the chaff on it. The winnowing fork is part of the agricultural method of winnowing, where farmers toss the wheat into the air with a fork or shovel so that the chaff would be blown away, leaving the grain clean. The chaff exploded in the air. The important thing to know about this process is that the goal is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff. So this is our good news, the Messiah wants to save us, the wheat, but in order to do so the chaff must be burned away. The Holy Spirit can create new life in us, but only if we let the spirit burn away the chaff.

What is the chaff in your life? What do you need to get rid of to be useful to God, to have new life? You may already have a list. Does jealousy of a friend or colleague keep you from thinking clearly? Is there a relationship blocking your path? Perhaps your desire for perfection keeps you apart from others. Or maybe your list of holiday to-do’s is keeping you from experiencing God. Do you feel too busy to pray? Or perhaps the chaff of your life is something else. John the Baptist is calling us to name the chaff in our life so that the Holy Spirit can remove it and create new life in us.

Because the truth is that when repentance and forgiveness is possible, judgment is good news. The once menacing winnowing fork can bring us to new life. This judgment that John preaches to us about, while scary, is the only path to new life in the Holy Spirit. And as Kathy Grieb, the preacher at my ordination yesterday, said, the Holy Spirit is always working the crowd. You never know how the Holy Spirit is going to change your life.  It has certainly changed my life and I am grateful for the new life of a priest that the Holy Spirit has given me. And I pray that we may all find new life in the Spirit.

Because we can all be reborn through the waters of Holy Baptism. This Baptism of the Spirit that John tells us about calls all the baptized to new life. So in this season of Advent as we wait for the Messiah, let the Holy Spirit move through you and create new life within you. Think about the chaff in your life, whatever is blocking you from God. Pray for the Spirit to burn away the chaff, so that the wheat might remain and grow. Come Holy Spirit Come!

Longing in Advent

I love the different seasons of the church. I love changing the colors, using a seasonal preface and planning events around the new season. And I love Advent most of all. I used to think I loved Advent because it is the lead up to Christmas, and I really love Christmas. But I read something while preparing for this sermon that helped me realize why I really love Advent. In her book, Breathing Space, Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor, writes about why she loves Advent.

 

Probably the reason I love advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy.

But during Advent I am always in sync with the season. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is the time when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: “Marantha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come Emanuel!”

 

Something clicked with me when I read this, because I too am always in sync with Advent, and now I know it’s because Advent is not just about preparation but longing. We don’t just prepare for Christmas; we long for Christmas. We sing hymns like “O Come, O Come Emanuel!” We are asking for Christ to come now, like right now.

This is the kind of Advent I can understand because I am always full of longing. I am just that kind of person. Even though I have more than most, I always have long lists of things I want and long for.  And these aren’t just lists of things to buy (although trust me there are plenty of those). I have lists of goals, which are a kind of longing, I have personal goals, professional goals, goals for my husband and if I’m being really honest, goals for our dog. These longings range from simple things, like sticking to an exercise routine all the way to complex things like implementing a new worship service that will bring in droves of new members.

I also have longings for our wider communities. I wish that more people went to church and that more people could see the value in prayer. I wish for those who can’t even fathom the purpose of church to find Christ in their own way. I cry anhelo for all those who sleep outside when it is cold. I cry anhelo for those who don’t know where they will spend Christmas this year. And I long for a reality where no one lives in fear.

So there you go, I have a long list of longings. And we all have a long list of longings or anhelos, for ourselves, our families, our church and our world. Many of us long for the healing of someone we love, or perhaps we long for a change in situation: new job, new school, new house, or new friends. Or is there someone you long to see? Is there a place to long to see again that no longer exists or has changed so much that you don’t recognize it? Maybe you long to return to return to a moment in your life that is no longer. Like your sophomore year of college or a when all your children still lived at home? It could be that you long to see the house you grew up in? Perhaps you long for a more righteous world. And I think we all long for peace in our crazy violent world.

 

What do you long for this Advent? What is your anhelo?

 

            But what can we do with our longing in Advent? It would seem that the prophet Jeremiah had some ideas. In this morning’s reading, Jeremiah speaks to the Israelites who are in exile from Jerusalem in Babylon. The Babylonians besieged Jerusalem in 605 BCE and deported Jews to Babylon after the siege. It can be hard to imagine what their connection to Jerusalem was, but it was much more than a city on a map. For the ancient Israelites and indeed modern Jews, Jerusalem is a spiritual home, a cultural center, and the only place to be close to God. The Passover Seder ends with the prayer “Next year in Jerusalem.” Their longing for Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity must have been intense. Just as intense as any of our longings are today. But Jeremiah reassures them that “the days are surely coming” when God will fulfill His promise to Israel. He instructs them to remember God’s promise to them and to wait for the promise to be fulfilled. Jeremiah’s advice to a desperate exiled people is to hold steadfast to God’s promise.

And Jeremiah offers us the same advice this morning. We too are a people full of longing waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled. We all know what it is to long for something and wait for the longed for promise to be fulfilled. We are all eager to see the future God has in store for us. And in our case this promised future is Jesus or the righteous Branch that sprang up from David. Jeremiah reminds us that in the midst of all of our longings, what we really long for is Jesus.

 

What does it mean to long for Jesus?

 

For me, to long for Jesus, is to be who we are right now. It is to be a broken and confused people who long for something more. To long for Jesus, is to long for God’s future for us and for our world. If you wish for a world without violence you are wishing for God’s future. If you long to see a departed loved one, then you long for God’s future. If you wish to use your gifts in the best possible way, then you are longing for God’s future. If you long for comfort, hope or courage then you long for Jesus. We have to believe in God’s promise of His future for us, for surely the days are coming.

            As we wait for God’s promise in this season of Advent, what can we do with our longings, our anhelo? This Sunday like every Sunday brings us to the altar. Jeremiah’s promise to the people that the “days are coming” comes to fruition for us most clearly in the Eucharist. Perhaps in Advent, we can see this table as a table of longing and we can bring everything we long for to the table. Perhaps we can let God’s promise present in the Eucharist nourish us with hope as we wait with our longings this Advent. Amen.

 

Labor Day Sunday - Sermon by Jane Flowers Sept 6, 2015

Good Morning and Happy Labor Day Weekend.  I was asked earlier in the spring, by some very persuasive individuals here at the church, to speak today about Labor Day and my experience as a Christian in the work force.  Of course I felt a little apprehensive about doing this,  especially after telling my daughter Savannah and her response was You?  But here I stand, humbly in front of you with a few words I hope you will be able to reflect on in the coming year.

Labor Day was originally organized to celebrate various labor associations' strengths and contributions to the United States economy which begun back in 1882.  HHhowever, now it is more often just thought of as a holiday used for a day of rest or the last chance for many people to go on trips before the summer ends. Which is why I felt more confident about giving this sermon because I knew most of the church would be on their last summer fling!!  And of course for most students, this the last weekend before school begins.

Not much thought is given to the actual term Labor Day anymore.  So I took a moment to break it down.  When we think of labor so many different things can come to mind:

Labor: 

  • A physical or mental exertion, especially with exhausting work
  • A specific task or effort, especially a painful or arduous one
  • The process which child birth occurs

So given this context, labor certainly doesn’t seem like an enjoyable task, although it is something most of us cannot ignore unless we happen to be heirs to a great fortune.  However, as I looked back on my various jobs that I have labored in, there was always one factor that determined if the job would be a painful or arduous one as mentioned above or a labor of love, one I would describe as something to look forward to and enjoy on a daily basis....

The complete sermon can be found here.

Who do you say that I am?

Welcome to the beginning of our program year! It is great to be here with you all. Even though I have actually been here for a couple of months today feels kind of like my first day of school. This past week has been hectic for many of us. We likely started some new things and made decisions that will affect the rest of our year. It can be hard to draw a connection between our busy lives and this morning’s Gospel reading that I am nicknaming “Peter’s Bad Day.”  But this morning’s Gospel is really about identity and lifestyle, and these are definitely two good things to think about as we start up a new year together.

There is a lot going on in “Peter’s Bad Day.”  I am calling this lesson “Peter’s Bad Day” not only because Peter plays a central role in the narrative but also because it helps me dive into the text by imagining myself as Peter. This story really has three parts. In the first Peter is just strolling along with his friends in Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them who they think he is. The other disciples offer up all the wrong answers but Peter gives the right answer. However instead of being praised for his insight, Peter is quickly rebuked and told not to repeat this to anyone. This was probably not what imagined Jesus’ reaction would be.

            In the second section Peter is listening to Jesus teach the crowds that are following them. It starts out like a normal parable session and then all of the sudden Jesus starts saying all this stuff about how he must suffer and die. Peter is so surprised – isn’t this friend Jesus speaking? What is he talking about? Peter has never heard any of this before. When Peter pulls Jesus aside and asks him what he is talking about, Jesus rebukes Peter by calling him Satan and telling him that he is thinking only about the human and not the divine. Geez- that’s some tough love. Peter is not being cut any slack here. Would you want your friend and mentor to call you Satan? I certainly would not.

            In the third part of the story, Jesus continues his rebuke of Peter and now includes the whole group. I am sure they were very pleased that Peter opened them all up to this lecture. I can imagine that Peter was getting some dirty looks at this point. Jesus’ speech is confusing, he tells his disciples that to follow him they must deny themselves and take up their cross. Then he tells them that they must lose their lives to save their lives. While Jesus’ message is somewhat cryptic to us, it probably made sense to the disciples because they left their lives and families to follow Jesus. Now that we have followed the journey of “Peter’s Bad Day” you may wonder what this story has to do with identity and lifestyle.

            For me, this Gospel is really about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. The crux of the story is the question; “But who do you say I am?” Jesus’ identity as our Messiah is important, as Peter learns in our Gospel this morning. Just like Peter, there is often a gap between who we want Jesus to be and who He really is. Peter wanted a strong leader who would free Israel from the Romans. But instead he got a Messiah who allowed the Romans to kill him. This was not what Peter expected. And this is something we can understand; we have all been surprised by people we know very well.

            And I think this is something that happens with Jesus too. We may have a certain vision of who Jesus is, but it may not be complete. Who do we really say that He is? Many of us think of Jesus as the comforter and we forgot about Jesus the challenger. It is much easier to think of the Jesus who gently carries sheep than the sharp tongued Jesus we find in this morning’s Gospel. For me, it’s easier to think about the Jesus who calms me down when I am scared than the Jesus who pushes me to consider my values. This is why I relate so easily to Peter, and why you might relate to him too.

            And this is why we have to keep asking the question; “who do you say that I am?” We have to constantly be asking ourselves who Jesus is because he may not be exactly who we remember or expect. He is constantly at work in our lives in unexpected ways. Peter learned this and we will too. Following Jesus does not always take the form we think it will. And this is why the final part of this morning’s Gospel is so hard to digest. If we encounter the unexpected Jesus, then what does following Him mean? Peter thought following Jesus meant glory and triumph but it really meant watching Jesus die and rise from the dead. And this is what I think it means to lose our life to save it. Following Jesus means being ready for our lives to change in ways we don’t exactly wish for.

And this is what I heard this morning’s Gospel say. Peter learned that his Messiah wasn’t exactly who he thought he was and that following him was going to be very different than he anticipated. The same is true for us, our Messiah may not be exactly who we usually think He is, so to follow Him we must be prepared for some unexpected things. So we must keep asking the question: who do you say that I am? Hopefully our answer to this question will prepare us to be ready for the unexpected of Jesus. Amen.

Sermon on Jonathan Daniels, August 16, 2015

Today we remember the martyrdom of Jonathan Myrick Daniels so I will begin this morning by sharing the story of his life with you. He was born in Keene, New Hampshire in 1939 to a Congregationalist family. Jonathan grew up to be studious and found great comfort in religion. He joined the Episcopal Church as a high school student and began to feel a call to ministry. Jonathan attended the Virginia Military Institute for college. Jonathan loved the South and considered it his adopted home. However, his romantic vision of the South was dashed by the reality of race relations. There were no African American students at VMI and Lexington, VA was completely segregated.

The intensity of his experience at VMI and the death of his father began a phase of religious doubt for Jonathan. At this point Jonathan decided not to become a minister and began a graduate program at Harvard in English. He did not enjoy his time at Harvard and became quite depressed.  At his lowest he went to Easter Sunday services in 1962 at the Church of the Advent in Boston. While there, he realized he was in the wrong graduate program. So Jonathan decided to pursue ministry and enrolled at the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1963.

In March 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, asked northern clergy and seminarians to join him in Selma, Alabama, for a march to the state capital in Montgomery to demonstrate support for the civil rights movement. Jonathan was contemplating this request when he attended daily Evening Prayer at the chapel at the seminary. Daniels decided that night that he should go. Reflecting later on this experience he wrote: 

I had come to Evening Prayer as usual that evening, and as usual I was singing the Magnificat with the special love and reverence I have always felt for Mary's glad song. "He hath showed strength with his arm." As the lovely hymn of the God-bearer continued, I found myself peculiarly alert, suddenly straining toward the decisive, luminous, Spirit-filled "moment" that would, in retrospect, remind me of others--particularly one at Easter three years ago. Then it came. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things.’ I knew then that I must go to Selma. The Virgin's song was to grow more and more dear in the weeks ahead.”

Daniels showed remarkable reflection and discernment in his writings. The words he heard every night took on new meaning as he discerned a call to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement. The words of the Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel inspired him to travel to Selma.

            After the march, Jonathan and another seminary student, Judith Upham, decided to stay and to continue being a part of the movement. Reflecting on this choice, Daniels realized that his experience with the Civil Rights movement was his education and that it made Christianity true for him. While Jonathan was in Alabama the situation became increasingly violent. He and Judith spent time trying to integrate local Episcopal churches. They were also involved in various protests throughout Alabama.

            Jonathan was arrested on August 14, 1965 with a group of protestors in Fort Deposit, AL. Jonathan and the other remained in jail for six days and were released on August 20th.  The group left the prison and walked to a corner store to buy soda for the group. A man named Tom Coleman met them at the door with a shotgun and would not let them into the store. Tom aimed his gun at a young woman in the group named Ruby Sales. Jonathan Daniels pulled her back and was killed himself. He was 26 years old. Tom Coleman was charged with manslaughter, not murder, and was acquitted by an all white jury. His acquittal enraged the country and helped change the justice system in the South. When he heard of the tragedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "One of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry was performed by Jonathan Daniels." For his sacrifice Jonathan Daniels is now remembered as a martyr in the Episcopal Church.

            The story of Daniel’s life and sacrifice is inspiring. But it can be hard to know what to do with it. For one thing, it makes me feel like my own Seminary career was somewhat boring! But beyond that it is easy to think that our country is really beyond the deep racism that was entrenched in the South in the 1960’s. But are we really? I read things on my facebook newsfeed everyday about the danger of being African American in our country. I don’t need to go over these news stories because you know them too. We have moved forward from the 1960’s but racism is not overcome. If you are anything like me, you may think things like “Well I’m not racist this doesn’t apply to me.” You many think you don’t know any people who suffer racism or who are racist. Or you may even think that race doesn’t play a role in your life at all. But truly it affects all of us.

This fact became clearer to me this week as I read Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set A Watchman.” Now hopefully what I share won’t be a spoiler for those of you hoping to still read it. Scout has returned to Maycomb, Alabama as a young woman and is horrified at the racism in her town and in her own family. She is so disgusted in fact that she packs her things to leave Maycomb forever and resolves to have no contact with anyone in Maycomb. She considers this to be the only possible reaction to what she encountered. As she prepares to leave her Uncle offers her this advice: “You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran. You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’ You’d better take time for ‘em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.” Scout’s uncle was telling her that she had to stay and work with the people who didn’t agree with her. This idea knocked me over. I often think race doesn’t really apply to me, but this speech showed me that I have to take the time to be with people who think all different kinds of things about race or I’ll never grow as a person. As long as we deny or avoid race we make the problem worse.

            This is a good time to think about race as our Bishop Diocesan has made gaining a better understanding of the rising racial tensions in our communities a focus for the Diocese of Virginia. To this end our Bishops are hosting hand in hand listening sessions throughout the diocese. These sessions are just an opportunity to listen to what people are experiencing in our own communities. Hopefully, this mandate from the Bishops to think about racial tension and the story of Jonathan Daniels will inspire us to think about the racial realities around us. If we use the Magnificat as our point of departure – what will we find? How can our souls magnify the Lord? Amen.

--- The Rev'd Deacon Grace A. Pratt

Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51

"I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty."

            Last week I shared about a book called “Take this Bread” by Sara Miles. It is a memoir of Sara’s radical conversion to Christianity. Just to rec-cap, Sara grew up thinking religion was pointless but found herself pulled to Christ as an adult after receiving communion one Sunday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The little piece of bread she received at the Eucharist changed her life in wholly unexpected ways. She received the sign she needed to believe in the Eucharist; receiving the Bread of Life changed her life.

This morning I will share the next chapter in Sara’s spiritual journey. As Sara began to work out her own theology she wasn’t attracted to complex concepts like the Trinity but rather to the idea of incarnation. It was the “materiality” of Christianity that drew her in. She was stuck on the idea that “words and flesh were deeply connected.” Jesus was both the word and the flesh. As she grappled with this reality the only metaphor she could cling to was her own experience of being a mother. She reflected that it seemed just as impossible that her daughter grew inside of her and carried her DNA as it did that Jesus lives inside the bread of the Eucharist. For Sara these two concepts were just as unlikely and just as true. And of course in this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus’ followers can’t understand this either. How could Jesus be the Bread of Life from heaven if he is also Mary’s son? The impossibility of the statement that Christ is the bread of life is hard to overcome. And yet it is true.

            Sara describes her hunger for more knowledge of the Bread of Life as “deep, non rational, desiring.” The next step in her journey was to serve on the altar at St. Gregory’s during worship. Serving at the altar helped bring her closer to mystery of the Eucharist. She also read the Bible and studied theology to come closer to her own understanding of Christ. It didn’t make total sense to her but she really liked that Jesus said he was bread and told his friends to eat him. Sara realized that food comes up a lot with Jesus. He fed the thousands of people who showed up, and he ate with sinners and tax collectors. Sara also points out that many of the stories about Jesus after his Resurrection involved food. In one story, his followers only know him after he breaks bread at the table, in another story he cooks fish on the beach, and in another he approaches his followers and asks them for something to eat. Feeding people is a part of Jesus’ mission. Of all the stories about Jesus, Sara could not stop thinking about when Peter asks Jesus how to love him. Jesus simply told Peter: “Feed my sheep.” This phrase stuck with Sara as her conversion progressed and she became more deeply involved at St. Gregory’s.

            The Christian faith that Sara found at St. Gregory’s was complex. Her first year at church was a year of questions. Sara realized that Christianity wasn’t just about faith in God but that it was also about action. As our psalm this morning says, “taste and see.” Sara tasted a connection between food and communion but she wasn’t sure what she was seeing. Or as Sara put it: “Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”

            This is the “so what” moment that many of us can recognize in our lives. What is the practical implication of the momentous choice I have made? I have this new job so what do I do? I am in high school now – what does that mean? Or I have a child now so what? Sara was figuring out the practical implications of her choice to become a Christian. The Holy Spirit intervened one day while she was shifting through her daily load of junk mail. She isn’t sure why, but Sara randomly chose to read a letter from San Francisco’s Food Book. The letter provided detailed information on hunger in San Francisco. It explained that working families that could not afford food often avoided soup kitchens and so they went hungry. To meet the needs of these families, the San Francisco Food Bank wanted to set up food pantries across the city, especially in areas where access to fresh food was limited. Families could shop for the food they wanted in the pantries and cook at home. While reading about this, something clicked for Sara and she thought this is it; this is a way to “feed my sheep.”

            The food bank director was eager for Sara and St. Gregory’s to start a food bank at the church. They are uniquely situated near neighborhoods where food is hard to find. But as you might guess, St. Gregory’s itself had many opinions on the idea of a food bank. It’s not easy to convince a church to take on a new ministry, especially one that involves a big mess and lots of strangers coming in and out of the sanctuary. Sara had to work hard to get the church’s backing, but finally the pantry opened the same week she was baptized.

            For Sara, this food pantry was another way of doing church. She put fold-up tables all around the altar and put some of the most beautiful altar cloths on them. For her, this was another communion table. About thirty-five people showed up to pick out groceries the first day the pantry was open. The next week around 50 people showed up and within a few months two hundred people showed up every week. Now they serve around 600 families a week and are one of the largest feeding ministries in the United States. Sara found a way to feed her sheep.

Sara found her answer to the question: “Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?” And I’m not suggesting that we all start our own food banks. God doesn’t call us all to the same ministries. But God does call us to act on our faith, to taste and see. Let the living bread inspire you to act on your faith. I share Sara Miles’s story of feeding the sheep in the hopes that it can inspire practical reflection on faith and action. It has certainly expanded how I look at the Bread of Life and how it is working in my life. What is the Bread of Life calling on you to do? It’s time to taste and see. Amen.

--- The Rev'd Deacon Grace A. Pratt