Blessed to be a follower

This is the manuscript from my sermon today. It is, essentially, the product of my preparation for preaching. I preach from the aisle and there is no denying the Holy Spirit moves a bit differently in that space than she does in my study in front of a computer. Still in all, this is the message shared today.

If youd like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here. We use Track 1.

I have no idea why, but several times this week I either saw or read about posters of idols on the wall.  You know the ones I mean.  Posters of favorite rock stars or actors, hung on the walls and sometimes on the ceiling.  Back when I was hanging posters, my room was full of posters of dancer Misha Baryshnikov.  Misha in a tour jete.  Misha in tour l’air.  Mischa in an entrechat. Misha on just about any surface.  It got me thinking: if I were to hang a poster today, who would it be?

My choice might be something of a surprise.  I’d hang a poster of President Jimmy Carter. He was the first presidential candidate who caught my notice, a few years before I was old enough to vote. You know me, so some of you at least, would guess that I admire his politics. You’d be right.  I do. But there are other reasons, too. He has done more good in his 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s than most people accomplish in a lifetime.

You might know that I have a bulletin board above my writing desk. On it I keep quotes, which are usually about things I need to remember. I have a couple of quotes from President Carter, including:

“I have one life and one chance to make it count for something… My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.” 

If these words sound familiar, it may be because I quoted them in my sermon last week when I talked about using all that we have to do good in the world, claiming our action as part of our Christian identity.

You see, it is not his activism or his politics that would cause me to hang a poster of him on my wall. It is the root of his activism, his core outlook on life and faith that moves me most.  Jimmy Carter is one of the most faithful and faith-filled people I “know.” I am amazed and humbled by his example of embodied Christianity, his model of Jesus-focused discipleship.

When I hear him talk or read something about him, I can imagine him listening with his whole self to Jesus’ invitation:

            “Will you come and follow me?”

I can imagine him saying, “I will follow you wherever you go. I will follow you wherever you lead me, Jesus. I will follow you to places I don’t necessarily want to go, to be with people I don’t necessarily want to meet, to do things I don’t necessarily want to do.  I will follow you, Jesus. I will follow you wherever you lead me.”

Today’s Gospel can be a hard one. Is Jesus really saying that burying one’s father is not important? I know how problematic that can be.  I invite you to think about it a bit differently.

Could it be that Jesus recognized this request: “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” as an opportunity for this man to move himself far enough from Jesus that the power of the invitation was lost. This invitation to transformational relationship would be forgotten in the details of daily life. I’ll be honest. I choose to believe that Jesus was responding to this eventuality, this likelihood.

Jesus knows that this invitation: “Will you come and follow me?” is not a simple or easy one. It may, in fact, be one of the most challenging invitations we will ever receive. It is one that, if most of us thought too deeply about, would send us hurrying in the opposite direction. It is, I dare say, one that many of us, myself included sometimes, would rather not examine too deeply.

And, yet, it is the most amazing invitation anyone could ever receive. Following Jesus, living into our call to Christian discipleship, requires that each of us be open to life-altering changes. Jesus does not -never has – invited us to comfortable discipleship.

The invitation is not to venture out of the comfort of our homes each Sunday morning to walk or drive to this beautiful building on this lovely parcel of God’s creation, to sit with people we love and people we like, to offer prayer and prayers, to seek comfort and strength, to be nourished by the fellowship of the Table. Don’t get me wrong. That is a part of the invitation, but only a part.

The true invitation is to take the chance to let your heart be opened, to let your very life be changed. It is about doing God’s work in the world, seeing God’s people as God sees them, perfectly made and loved by God.  This is not always easy.  Even those of us who venture out to do God’s work need a bit of encouragement and help to see as God sees.  For even the well-intentioned seeing of someone as a person who “needs help” means we are not seeing that person in all fullness, recognizing that person as God would have us do, as one of God’s unique and thoroughly beloved children.

Sometimes the challenge is in letting go of things we think we know about ourselves so that we have the space to see ourselves as God sees us.  A good example of that (to me and, I hope, to all of you) is how we ended up on this journey together.  If you had asked me five years ago if I would leave my life in Massachusetts to move to Millburn, NJ, I’d have dismissed the possibility out of hand.  To leave family and friends, to ask my husband and children to do the same, to leave behind the ministries I’d loved and nurtured since before I was ordained, would have been outside the realm of any likelihood.  And yet, here I am.  Here we are, discerning together how God’s Spirit is working in and through us as we seek to follow where Jesus leads.  

“Will you come and follow me?”

Will you live your faith with your feet, venturing into unknown places? Venturing into places you know you’d rather not go?

Will you live you faith with your hands, providing food for the hungry and clothing to poor? Medical care for the ill? Safety for those fleeing violence? Building houses for the homeless?

Will you live your faith with your heart? Will you offer a listening ear to one who desires to be heard? Will you offer your company to one who desires to be noticed? Will you do your best to see that person as God does?

And, yes, will you reach into your pockets and share your treasure as a sign of faith? Will you give generously to those causes that enable God’s justice and mercy to be enacted in our days?

In our tradition we have an understanding of saints as being those people who live their lives as extraordinary examples of embodied faith. They show us ways to live more deeply into the heart of God,as followers of Jesus. This is something we all can aspire to do. This is something we all are invited to do.

I’ve shared that Jimmy Carter is one of the people who challenge and invite me to live my life as a follower of Jesus, to accept with joy Jesus’ invitation to me. Perhaps you, too, have a “poster person,” someone who is an example or inspiration to you, someone you can look to for encouragement when accepting Jesus’ invitation seems too hard or unexpected.

Whether or not you do, or even want to, I encourage you to listen closely for Jesus’ invitation to you,

“Will you come and follow me?” I encourage you to answer with a resounding,

“Yes! I will follow you, Jesus. I will follow you wherever you lead me. I will do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”

I encourage you to let Jesus into your hearts and minds, into your lives wherever it is, however it is whenever it is, with whatever it is, that Jesus asks. I invite you to take that leap of faith to trust the Jesus will only lead you to the place you need to be to experience transformation and to move deeper into the heart of God.

The holy mystery of love

This is the manuscript from my sermon today, Trinity Sunday. It is, essentially, the product of my preparation for preaching. I preach from the aisle and there is no denying the Holy Spirit moves a bit differently in that space than she does in my study in front of a computer. Still in all, this is the message shared today.

If you’d like to read the lectionary, you’ll find it here.

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day we celebrate God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God transcendent, incarnate, immanent. Trinity Sunday is a day in which preachers are wise to exercise great caution. Although a core tenant of our faith and something we say and pray all the time, the Trinity is not all that easy to understand. Thus, it is not all that easy to preach.  It is a topic on which it is easier than most to veer into heresy – those statements about the nature of God that do not, despite the best intentions, adequately or accurately explain the Godhead.

There is a fun Youtube channel called, “The Lutheran Satire,” which I commend to you if you have any theology or liturgy geek in you. Featured on this site is a bit called “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.” ( You can check it out here.) “Bad” though the analogies may be, this bit contains one of the best explanations of the Trinity:

“The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reason but is understood only through faith.”

It goes on to reference the creed attributed to the 6th Century theologian, St. Athanasius, who offered the best non-heretical description we have, which includes: “that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.  For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.  But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.”

So, one of the most comprehensive, non-heretical, and easiest to understand descriptions of the Trinity clearly is less than clear.  The nature of God defies not only the comprehension of human reason but challenges the capacity of human language.

God bless St. Athanasius for his theological brilliance and for his timeless writing about the Trinity. I mean that most sincerely.  God bless St. Athanasius and all who strive for clarity and deeper understanding of this crucial aspect of our Christian heritage and understanding. God bless them because, despite their theological brilliance, extraordinary ability to lend language to this reality, and best efforts at explanation, we remain confused.

Yet, they lead us to the place we need to be.

They lead us to the place the disciples find themselves in today’s Gospel, wrestling with the question:

How are we to understand life with Christ in the post-resurrection world?

You see, as interesting as it may be, as important as it is, for most of us the question isn’t whether or not we can explain the Trinity. The question that matters most to us as we live our lives is: How does our faith in God always present prepare us and shape us each and every day? How are we motivated and challenged? How are we assured, comforted, and consoled?

In today’s Gospel, part of John’s Farewell Discourse, the disciples are preparing for a crisis of sorts.  Jesus has told them yet again that he will be leaving them. They are scared. They are uncertain. They are in need of assurance, comfort, and consolation. Jesus is telling them, in language that is about as clear to us as is St. Athanasius’ description of the Trinity, that the future they envision and hope for is possible even as they prepare to live life in Palestine without him. Jesus is reassuring the disciples that God has been, is, and will always be present with them, even as they lose their beloved teacher and friend. Jesus is telling them that the real experience of God is not in restricted to life with the incarnate God.

Jesus is telling them and us that life with God is life with God because God is God.

In a sense, Jesus is preparing his disciples to be the people we are. We are people of faith who believe in God’s presence. We believe, not because we experienced the incarnate God up close and personal, but because we know God through the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us. Jesus is encouraging the disciples to move from believing in that which they can see and hear and touch, the human Jesus, to belief in the immanent presence of God, the Holy Spirit.

So what does it mean to be a people of faith who believe in the God no one of us today has ever seen in the flesh, as it were? We may find ourselves – sometimes or often- experiencing the same kind of crisis the disciples faced. We may find ourselves in need of assurance, comfort, and consolation, though for different reasons. The obstacles we face, the challenges to our faith, come not from anticipating the loss of the incarnate God, but from the consequences of our own flawed humanity, despite our faith or lack of faith.

We are faced with different questions, different concerns, though they are no less compelling. How do we maintain our faith in a world in which there often seems to be so little that resembles God’s dream for God’s people? How does one maintain hope and faith when all around are examples of injustice, violence, lack of compassion, divisiveness? When one hears of examples of such things in the name of God? In the name of Jesus?   For example, how can we bear to hear of pastors calling for the death of some of our brothers and sisters because of their gender and sexual identity, saying it is in Jesus’ name? How do we bear the reality of children being in held in what are tantamount to concentration camps on our border?

It would be easy to take this in the direction of calling attention to ways we can make the kinds of changes in the world that need to be made to move closer to God’s dream for the world. But this is not a sermon about answers. This is about living in and with the questions, embracing the mystery, embodying faith.  It is about understanding that how we live with those questions, reveling in the mystery, informs what we do and how we move deeper into the heart of God.

This is about putting ourselves in a place similar to the place the disciples found themselves. It is about committing to active relationship with God, to life with Christ, in the absence of what we think we might need as reasonable and reasoned people to justify or explain that commitment. It is, in the language of the traditional aphorism, knowing that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

And that is just another way of saying that we believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is one with God and Jesus, whether or not we could maintain that claim in a court of law or in a field of scientific inquiry. We are to trust that relationship with God is not static or stagnant, a kind of theological “one and done.” God has been, is, and will always be at work in the world at all times for all time.

When he wrote about the nature of the Trinity in Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis likened it to a dance, with pulsating energy and beautifully intricate, intimate movement.  That description resonates deeply with me, a former classically trained dancer.  When you are dancing well, fully present to the experience, the music, the rhythm energizes you from the inside out. It takes every ounce of discipline you have not to explode willy nilly, to embody in graceful ways the energy and excitement within. It takes on a life of its own deep within and compels you to move with it.

Today is Trinity Sunday and we are celebrating the mysterious, confounding Trinitarian Godhead, who is known to us through our faith. We are celebrating the promise God has made, makes, and will continue to make to be present in the world, to be present with all people, for all time, in ways known and unknown, obvious and less clear.  We are celebrating the grace that is given us to awaken to the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, inviting her to compel us to go into the world to be the best God created us to be.  Jesus and countless martyrs since were willing to die for this truth.  It is the holy mystery of love that is well worth living for.

The best kind of impolite

This is the manuscript from my sermon on the Day of Pentecost, June 9, 2019. The lectionary for the day is found here. We used the reading from Genesis as the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and then the reading from Acts as the lesson from the New Testament.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, sometimes called the “birthday of the Church.” It is the day the Holy Spirit entered the room in which the disciples and a few friends were gathered and entered into each one of them so that they could go out and become the Church.  When this happened, crowds of people were aware and astonished at what they heard.  After being assured that this was not the result of drunken exuberance, they believed in what was happening.  No matter where they were from, no matter the language they spoke, they all could understand each other.  God’s Spirit brought the people together to be God’s people, the Church, together.

Can you even imagine being one of the disciples?  Secluded in a locked room, trying still to figure out what has been happening?  You’ve spent time upending your lives to follow Jesus, believing him to be the long-prophesied Messiah.  You are eager, desperate, perhaps, for the kind of change he promised, the kind of change you saw and felt happening as you traveled with him through Galilee.  Then he gets arrested, tried, and executed.  He is resurrected.  He shows up again, reassuring you that all is well.  He offers you his peace, encouraging you to receive the Holy Spirit.  As John tells it in today’s Gospel, this is a rather nice conversation, comforting and reassuring.

The reading from Acts, on the other hand, tells it quite differently.  The Holy Spirit entered the room with “sound like the rush of a violent wind, and then there were tongues of fire.  I’m guessing this was a bit unsettling, to say the least.  Can you imagine looking around the room and seeing flames above the heads of your friends and then realizing those flames are above your head, too?  How shocking to realize these flames are not destroying everything.  You are not burned.  You do not perish.  Instead you are filled with the Holy Spirit and given the gifts you need to be able to share this good news with the whole world.  You look around and it is apparent this same thing is happening to everyone there.

And the people in the streets, people who don’t speak the same language, or share the same customs, gathered to celebrate Shavout, also known as Pentecost, the festival commemorating the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Horeb.  These people all hear what is going on.  Wherever they are from, whatever language they speak, after being reassured this is not a drunken hallucination, understand that something life-changing is happening.

On that day over 2000 years ago, 50 days after the first Easter, the Holy Spirit descends upon the disciples and they are given the gifts they need to be able to share the Good News of God in Christ with the whole world.  They understand that following Jesus, a command they are have heard from him over and over again, means something more than following him around the countryside, participating in his ministries.  Following Jesus means listening to God’s Spirit.  They are empowered, enlivened, and emboldened to go out into the world sharing the radical love of Jesus the Christ with everyone they encounter.  They are, to paraphrase our Presiding Bishop, “The original Jesus Movement, sent out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many, into the dream God has for it.”

This, my friends, is the call to the Christian Church.  The Church was not born so that the Good News could be shared with an in-group or only with a select few.  The Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples, violently awakening in them gifts they needed to look beyond themselves and their communities so they could go out and do God’s work in God’s world.  Pentecost is the day the Church was born to be a beacon of hope in a broken world.

The Holy Spirit changed the disciples, just as she continues to change us.  The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the capacity to meet others where they are, relating across all kinds of difference, just as she continues to grow that capacity in us.  The Holy Spirit increased their understanding, opening their hearts and their minds to the realities of other people, just as she continues to do for us.

As much as I am grateful the Holy Spirit seems to work a bit more sedately and politely today, I admit that I do sometimes wonder what we would look like as the Church, as the household of God, if we took a page from the Holy Spirit who storms into the room to enter into the disciples as they sat together and prayed, separate and secluded from the world around them.  What would we look like if we trusted the Holy Spirit to ignite the power of God’s love in us as we set out to be a part of the healing the world?

And I’ll confess that I do love the image of the wild, untamed Holy Spirit surprising the disciples and changing them and their lives forever, changing them is a way that is so big, so powerful, that talk about it over 2000 years later.  This is the Holy Spirit who breathes new life into everyone who is open to receiving it.  The best kind of impolite, not waiting for an invitation but showing up to do what has to be done – filling each and everyone of us with the knowledge of God’s grace- changing us so that we can go out and change the world.

This is the Church.  It is a household filled to overflowing with the power of the Holy Spirit to make a difference in our own lives and in the lives of others.  We are called to reach out and gather together, to love and serve each other, striving for justice and peace, respecting the dignity and worth of every human being, seeking and serving Christ in all persons. 

As the disciples experienced firsthand, this does not always happen in the ways we expect, or even in ways we might want.  God really does work in mysterious ways, in uncomfortable, sometimes unwanted ways.  Being Christian is (and I quote theologian John Stott) “inconvenient because it requires a rethinking and reworking of all manner of things.”  It can be challenging to be open to hearing the Holy Spirit and even more challenging to listen to where and how she is calling us to be.  Knowing that and still be willing to listen and respond is an amazing gift.

The Christian Church is founded on the life and ministry of a radical man, who hung out with sinners, performed all sorts of awe-inspiring miracles, owned nothing, and offered outrageous hospitality to everyone he met.  A man who did this prayerfully, with an understanding that all that is comes from God.  Jesus, who lived as faithfully as it is possible to live, and refused to abide by rules that ran contrary to the will of God, that denied the reality of God’s love, justice, and mercy for all people, especially the poor and those on the margins.  Jesus who promised to be with us always, who gave us his peace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

My hope and prayer for us as we celebrate this day and enter into the season of Pentecost, is that each one of us will be open to the wild, untamed Holy Spirit working in our lives and in our community.  May we be surprised by the joys, challenges, and inconveniences of life with Christ in ways that empower, enliven, and embolden us to go out into the world and be God’s Church.