With the heart of a child

My sermon from Easter, 2019.

I have a great niece, Ava, who is ten.  Ava is one of those bright, gregarious children who greet every day as if it is the best thing ever and created only for her.  She is witty and self-confident, with a child’s refreshing ability to speak the truth as she sees it.  There are times she drives her mother absolutely crazy for all the reasons a great aunt thinks she is absolutely delightful.  Ava soaks up love in incredible measure and is, in return, also an incredibly loving child. 

A few years ago, when Ava was six, her mother, Kelly, posted a Facebook picture of her posing and gazing thoughtfully at herself in the mirror.  Kelly said it was the 50th time that morning.  As I laughed at Kelly’s comment, I felt my heart smile, in part because I miss those days when my own children were drawn to check themselves out in the mirror or eager to be photographed with some cheesy smile.  I miss those days when my own children would come running to me with one of their discoveries:  “Mommy, did you know….?”  “Mommy, look what I found….”  “Mommy look what I did…”

There is something compelling, in a joyful and gentle way, to be given the opportunity to witness such a life.  The innocence of childhood.  The simplicity of life. The complete, unadulterated acceptance of the love you are given. The sheer joy in seeing what life has to offer, jumping in, not just with both feet, but with the whole body, mind, and soul.  Having an apparently endless capacity to tell a story with unadulterated enthusiasm and wonder.  And approaching each situation – even if it is the 50th time you’ve looked at yourself in the mirror in a single morning – with the same energy, excitement, and enthusiasm as if it were the first time.   And at the same time, somehow, seeming to live each day as if it might be your last.  Using that same energy, which can drive a mother crazy, to share the news with the world, your world, in pictures or honest spoken truths.  Somehow helping the adults in your life see the world a bit differently than they did the day before.

When I saw that Facebook picture of Ava, I was reminded of how refreshing and life-affirming it is to have the confidence and the courage to speak the truth, in words or in pictures.  There is something captivating about the raw energy of a child’s exuberance.  There is something positively evangelical about a child’s awe and wonder.  Seeing the world through a child’s eyes it is as if one were seeing the world for the very first time.  It is as if life were new each and every time. 

Today is Easter, the day in which we celebrate the divine Love poured out for us and conquering death.  It is the day in which we share the culmination of the Gospel story, which is ours to soak up in incredible measure, just like a child soaks up and then revels in the love in her life.  It is the day in which we listen again to the fulfillment of the promises God made to us at the beginning of all creation.  Although in history Easter was a distinct event, it is, paradoxically, new for us each and every day.  That, too, is God’s promise.

Jesus life, his death, and his resurrection were all about love.  Jesus was the incarnation of God’s self-giving, unconditional love for the world. He reached out time and again to those others ignored, to those others excluded.  He brought them: poor, homeless, ill, women, into his life, God’s life, loving them fully and well, giving them hope.  He died because he preached a radical and counter-cultural message of love that threatened the political and religious authorities.  He rose because God’s perfect love can never be overcome by death or anything else of human making. 

Jesus was, is, and will always be the expression of God’s perfect love in the world. 

He showed us through his words and his actions how to live as God intends, loving our neighbors as ourselves.  He taught us how to respond to God’s indwelling love by offering it out to others. A love like this must be shared over and over and over again.  It is the source of all that is, a comfort in our sorrows, the joy in our hearts, our peace of mind.  It is the promise of our past, present, and future.  It is all of that and more.  Indescribable. Unimaginable.  Undefinable. Unconditional. Unequivocable.  It is both supremely constant and deliciously new each and every day.

There is more to today’s story, however, than just a retelling of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  It is impossible to separate Jesus’ story from our stories: from your story, from my story, from the stories of all those who have come before and those yet to receive the breath of life. 

Jesus lived, died, and lived again so that we might live our lives- that we might live God’s love – with the sheer exuberance of a six-year-old child, who knows who she is and still chooses to greet herself 50 times in a morning as if she will discover something new. 

My prayer for all of us is that we experience the Easter story with joyful abandon, a child’s perspective on life and the world. May we always embrace God’s love for us, and have the willingness to tell the story over and over again as if it were the first time it were ever told. 

Jesus lives!  Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

From darkness into light

On April 20th, I had a wonderful time preaching and presiding at the Great Vigil of Easter at Church of the Holy Spirit in Verona, NJ. Here is the homily from that service.

Prior to moving to New Jersey, to become Rector of St. Stephen’s, Millburn, I was bi-vocational. I was a hospice and hospital chaplain, in addition to being a parish priest. As a hospice chaplain, I officiated at more funerals than I can count. Often, these would be for people with little experience of Christian liturgy. I would tell them (sometimes the families, sometimes the person if they were involved in the planning) that the burial office is an Easter occasion.

I would remind them that, before the grace and glory of Easter, there was much suffering and heartache. Before there was the empty tomb, there was the journey to the cross. Before there was the Resurrection, there was crucifixion.  I think about that when I think about what it is we are doing here tonight.

The Great Vigil of Easter is such a profound, beautifully crafted expression of the journey from darkness into light, from grief into joy. It is an awe-inspiring reminder that God, being God, responded to the darker sides of our humanity in truly remarkable ways: first the inbreaking into the world of the incarnate God in the infant Jesus, and then the conquering of death through the resurrection on the third day.

It reminds us that true joy can only be fully experienced, that we can only begin to embody the meaning, if we spend time in the dark.  The forty days of Lent just past, the days between Palm Sunday and now, are important.  They are necessary to our understanding of this day.

This day, Holy Saturday until it became Easter, is just as crucial to our lives as any of these other days we find it easier to celebrate. We don’t always seem to know what to do  with the agony of the crucifixion and the darkness of the tomb. Doing more than hearing the story of Holy Week as historical event is hard, it is heartbreaking. Taking our place in the story,drawing the connections between our brothers and sisters in 1st century Palestine and our own lives, we are made uncomfortable, just as we are with sitting with the silence, with the absence of the living, breathing Jesus.

The time between Good Friday and Easter is hard, it is heartbreaking, it draws us to places we’d rather not go. It is why, I think, we tend to want to rush through or compress the observance of Holy Week. Moving quickly from Palm Sunday and the Passion to Easter is easier. It eases our burden by capturing the highlights. We do get the highlights but we miss so much, so much that is essential to our relationship with God.

It is no accident or coincidence that our liturgy this evening began outside in the darkening night with only the elemental power of flame to get us going. It is, somewhat paradoxically, both a symbol and the reality of our place in God’s story of creation. 

We are because God is and deemed it so.  God created the light and deemed it “good.”God became incarnate as the Light of the World to save us from ourselves and still we failed to fully embrace that love, that grace. We know this is our promise, this unconditional, unimaginable, undefinable, indescribable love, and yet, to quote Rabbi Heschel, the promise “is within our reach but beyond our grasp.”

A bit later we will share the first Eucharist of Easter.  Having journeyed together through the darkness that preceded the light of God’s creation, on through the story of our all-too-human attempts to understand the presence and the promise of God, through the darkest of days of the end of Jesus’ earthly life to the empty tomb, we come to the place of Light.  We come to Easter.

Along with Mary Magdalene and the others so surprised to find something other than what they expected after those most horrific of days, we are invited to share in the fellowship of the Risen Christ through the holy mystery of the Eucharist. 

We will taste Resurrection.  It is the holy food and drink that will nourish our souls.  It is a reminder that we are Easter people, called to embody the fullness of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It will comfort, strengthen, and sustain us as we continue this journey through the darkness and messiness of life, to the place we were created and intended to be, to the eternal Light.  

Alleluia! Alleluia!  Alleluia!

In the presence of God…

Earlier today I gathered with my diocesan clergy colleagues for the annual Renewal of Vows.  Our bishop, The Rt. Rev. Carlye Hughes, preached to us in her quintessential loving and deeply pastoral way.  She started out by talking about how much she loves being our bishop, how “delighted” she is to know all of us.  She spoke encouraging, honest words, clearly reflecting her understanding of what it is like to be in parish ministry.  Partway through the sermon she said something that caused me to gasp – audibly, perhaps.  She said, “Our job is to put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us.”  She went on to say that, in her experience, it is easier to “let God judge us,” but, nonetheless, that is not our job.  We are to let God work on us, in us, and through us because we are created to be doing what we do, in this particular time.

I know she said a whole lot more than that, some of which I remember, though I’m sure she will forgive me for not retaining too much of what she said after the “put ourselves in the presence of God and then let God change us” part.  When she spoke those words, which came after she first mentioned being created for ministry in this time, something in me shifted, something broke wide open.  It felt in that moment as if she were speaking directly to me, speaking about experiences I have had over the past several years, some of which she knows nothing about.

The journey toward ordained ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed.  I’m not sure that is should.  I believe there is something about how we experience God through the dark times, the challenging times, the times we’d rather not experience if we had our druthers, that changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be.

Don’t get me wrong.  I also believe that how we experience God through the mountaintop experiences, the exciting times, the uplifting times, changes us in ways that bring us closer to whom it is we are created to be.  This is true, too, in the neutral times, the more mundane times, the times we probably won’t recall in months or years.  All of it is essential because in all of it we are in the presence of the God who created us in the divine image for no other reason than love. God works on, in, and through us in all of it, whether we are aware or not. It’s just that sometimes it is easier to put ourselves -or maybe it’s that we don’t stop ourselves from wandering – into God’s presence during those times we are most aware of needing God’s help.

Parish ministry, even if it goes as smoothly as it can go, does not leave one unscathed.  This, I think, may be hard for folks who have not experienced it to understand.  How is it that a calling – doing the thing God wants or needs you to do in a particular time and place, with particular people – ever be scathing?  The short answer is that being in relationship, even with people with whom you fall deeply in love, as I have with the people I’ve served,  is hard. All of us are deeply human, even those of us in collars.  And as humans we sometimes struggle to be our best selves with each other.  It can be hard not to experience every shortcoming, every failure, every lost hope, as a personal failure. It can be hard not to move to that place of being in the presence of God for God’s judgment, rather than God’s life-giving love, when things don’t go as we or the congregation think they should.

My journey to ordained ministry included a number of challenges, some of which seemed at times to have little or nothing to do with me in particular.  Some of the challenges felt and were deeply personal. The journey to where I am today in ordained ministry included calls to two beautiful, faith-filled congregations where I served for less time than I had planned, though, in retrospect, for just the right amount of time.  I find myself now in a relatively new place, again a beautiful faith-filled congregation, and there is something about this call that seems different in ways that compel me to wonder, to unleash my curiosity in ways that feel new.

No doubt my awareness of what I have learned along the way from all of the people who have journeyed with me to this place and time has something to do with this new feeling of hopeful anticipation.  And, since this morning, I am aware that some of this change is because one of the things I have learned along the way is to go more readily into the presence of God to be changed, trusting that God’s creation of me to be in this place at this particular time is a process of creation that is ongoing and sure.