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.

Whispers, curiosity, and change

My sermon from the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019. The link to the lectionary is here.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The week before last, in the diocesan e-news, Bishop Hughes talked about her response to a question she was asked by a girl preparing for Confirmation.  The girl asked what it is that Bishop Hughes expects of us, the people of the Diocese of Newark.  Bishop Hughes responded that she expects each of us to “take [our] place as a faithful person in the world and in the church.” 

She has a vision for us. “When I picture the diocese, I picture the people of the diocese going all over the community, going out to their work, going into the world, and as they go, they carry God with them…carrying God’s love with them, wherever they happen to be…when we walk into the place, the light of Christ walks in with us…being the change in the world that God wants to make…as people of the diocese walk into situations that seem impossible, that everyone says are impossible… gun violence, hatred, healthcare…except that when people of the diocese walk in with the Holy Spirit whispering in their ears something happens.”  There is “a shift in those impossible things into the direction of God’s possibilities.”

I’ve been thinking about her words a lot.  I’m a big believer in the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in and through us all of the time, in all places, in all situations.  In the sixth months since I arrived (An aside: today we enter into our seventh month in ministry together!), you’ve probably heard me say a time or two, “The Holy Spirit working in and through us.”  I almost always dismiss us with the words, “Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of God’s Holy Spirit,” and love to be able to follow those words with a resounding “Alleluia!  Alleluia! Alleluia!”  God be praised!  God be praised! God be praised!

And yet, sometimes, when I listen to or read the news, I let my mind go down the rabbit hole of fear, anxiety and worry about the state of the world.  Hopelessness and desperation wriggle their way in.  At those times, trust in the Holy Spirit is a little more distant than I’d like. Thinking about the seemingly endless ways we treat each other badly, we seem to forget to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our[ neighbor as yourself” or we fail “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” it is too easy to forget that the response to both of these promises from the Baptismal Covenant is “I will, with God’s help.”  It is too easy to think that it is up to me or you or, even more frighteningly, politicians and government leaders, to heal our broken world.  It is far too easy to forget to praise God in my prayers and to stop and listen for what the Holy Spirit would have me know.  It is too easy to forget that God is the source of healing and will help us to understand how to be a part.

Bishop Hughes image of the Holy Spirit “whispering” in our ears, helping us to be a part of the change God wants to see in God’s world, makes me smile.  I’m remembering those days when my children were little, the days of what can seem like seemingly endless temper tantrums, of ear shattering crying.  If I could hold them close and whisper in their ears, more often than not, they would settle down.  Their curiosity about what Mama was saying to them in the midst of their tantrum got the better of them.  They would stop, they would listen, and, on a good day (and their were so many good days), the tantrum would be over and life would go on a bit more peacefully, often with the child in question doing whatever it was that was expected before the tantrum started or without whatever it was they wanted and could not have.

I have a similar image of us.  I imagine us frightened or filled with certitude that our way is the only right way or acting in some other equally human, not-in-the-image-of-God kind of way.  Whatever it is that is driving us, it is taking us in the wrong direction, rather than deeper into the heart of God.  It takes us in the direction of missteps in our relationships with one another through fractured relationships right on to violence and war.  Our fears and our certitude lead us to the places in which God’s dream for God’s world seems to be further and further away.  They cause us to forget that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Imagine how different we would be, how different the world would be, if we nurtured our curiosity about how the Holy Spirit is working and through us, what whispered words we might hear about the right ways to our life, from the seemingly insignificant decisions of our closest relationships to how we treat people we’ve never met and will never know personally.  Imagine how different the conversations we would have about accidents of birth such as race and gender/sexual identity, about immigration status and belonging, about all the ways we make distinctions between people that God does not make.  Imagine, too, how differently we would approach conversations about money and wealth and our stewardship of the environment and the world’s resources. Imagine how we would be changed, how the world would be changed, if we responded as if with the curiosity of a child?

What would happen to us, to our neighbors, to the world, if we stopped what we were doing long enough to listen to the Advocate, to learn what it is that God wants us to know, to be reminded of God’s dream for God’s world?  What would it be like to live without fear, with the peace of God in our hearts, trusting that Jesus continues to give us something other than what we give ourselves and each other?  

Imagine if we all lived our lives acknowledging that we carry God’s love with us wherever we go, that Christ’s light shines through us. How much easier it would be to move from thinking “impossible” to “possible,” going from the human fear and all that shapes the current reality of the world, remembering that Jesus’ vision of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope can only take us in one direction: to a deeper experience of God’s grace and life-affirming, life-giving peace.

“Live without fear. Your creator loves you, made you holy, and has always protected you. Follow the good road in peace, and may God’s blessing remain with you always.”  May these words, whispered into the ear of St. Clare of Assisi, guide your heart and your mind today and always, bringing to you the peace of Christ that passes all understanding.

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.

Interrupted by grace

If you receive the weekly newsletter from St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Millburn, this will be familiar.  It is the message for March 1, 2019.
This week in the office has been “one of those weeks.”  You get my meaning, right?  A week in which it seems that nothing I set out to do went without a glitch.  We had computer and phone issues.  We needed to call in the locksmith to fix a broken emergency egress lock.   We were working on all of the somewhat mundane behind the scenes stuff that is necessary to keep the parish going. And, to top it all off, it is also the week the annual parochial report is due.  This is the mandatory reporting to the diocese and national church about membership numbers, attendance at Sunday services, and finances.  Although it is important to our understanding of health and vitality of The Episcopal Church and one of the data sets that is used to decide mission strategies and such, it is probably fair to say it is one of the least favorite parts of parish ministry for most clergy.  And yet it has to be done so we do it.
While working on it this week and, if I am to be truthful, doing so with less than a joyful heart, with thoughts that this is not why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination running through my head, I was interrupted by a woman who came in to talk to me about a personal concern.  I’d never met her before, so I was a bit surprised and had absolutely no way of anticipating where the conversation would go or how it would turn out.  And I am aware that the sudden transition from the highly detailed work I had been doing to talking with someone didn’t feel as seamless as it usually feels for me.  At first I found it hard to ignore the ticking clock that was reminding me so loudly of all the things I needed to get done.
And then it happened!  The wise, wild, and wonderful Holy Spirit cracked it wide open, cracked me wide open.  Suddenly I saw – in that top-of-your-head-to-the-tip-of-your-toes ways of seeing – that this time with her is exactly why I went to seminary and jumped through all the hoops on the way to ordination.  The privilege to just be with someone, to listen to them with your whole heart, to acknowledge their pain and their hope, is what makes all of the mundane daily, weekly, monthly, and annual work worth doing.  True, the gift of getting to be with people often means the work we planned to do gets pushed aside or delayed and we need to rethink our plan.  True, too, the gift of connection to others is one of the surest signs of God’s grace.

Blessed to be a blessing

This is my sermon (more or less, because I preach without notes)  from February 17th, the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.  You will find the lectionary here.

Today’s Gospel is the “Sermon on the Plain”, one of two accounts of Jesus’ beatitudes.  It is easy to confuse or conflate the two but Luke’s Sermon on the Plain is not Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  There is no “poor in spirit” or “those who hunger for righteousness.”  There is only “you who are poor…you who are hungry now…you who weep now…you who are hated, excluded, reviled, and defamed.”  And there are the corresponding woes, which are not a part of the story in Matthew. This is quintessential Luke, bringing the Good News to the people in ways that are raw and real, demanding an examination of one’s heart and choices as a prerequisite to discipleship.  In Luke’s version of the story, there can be no doubt what Jesus wants, who Jesus prefers.

Jesus wants disciples who focus on God’s desires, God’s dream.  These are people who choose to follow his example and to do it in real and sacrificial ways. True followers of Jesus modify their dreams and desires, their goals, their very lives, to demonstrate an understanding that the measures of success we humans all too often prioritize will not get us deeper into the heart of God.  The Sermon on the Plain is a good reminder that the Gospel is not intended for our comfort, but for our transformation.  In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”

This is a challenging and often deeply uncomfortable message for those of us who are privileged – and we here are all privileged in one way or another, some of us greatly and multiply so. Luke reminds us that in the Good News there is a preferential option for those who lack privilege.  Failing to recognize our privilege and to see the obstacles faced by others leads to a self-congratulatory confidence that can be our demise.

I thought about that this week when I watched part of an interview with Ralph Northam, the Governor of Virginia.  In the interview, Gov. Northam was explaining how he has changed and continues to change since his medical school days, when he posed in blackface alongside a friend in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Gov. Northam seemed contrite and genuinely interested in better understanding why his actions from 35 years ago are so offensive and hurtful today.  One of the things he said is that he did not know, and continues to try to better understand, that his privilege blinded him to the very different experiences of others.  He was talking about those not lucky enough to be born white male, and middle class, with all of the opportunities that combination of accidents of birth provides.  His privilege was and continues to be an obstacle to his ability to see and understand that the trappings of traditional success are unattainable for many and often are the mechanisms by which others are oppressed, kept in a particular place, and not seen and valued for who they are: beloved children of God.

Luke speaks to this quite directly, at least by scriptural standards.  He has Jesus come down and stand on a level place with the apostles, disciples, and all who came to hear him and be healed.  Jesus speaks to the crowd and apostles together, giving all of them the same message about God’s grace, which is unequivocally about the preferential option for the poor, the hungry, the outcast.  Luke reminds us that Jesus seeks out the underdog, those left behind or cast aside.  Furthermore, he says that discipleship is a life-altering proposition.  It is, in the words of theologian John Stott, “inconvenient because it requires a rethinking and reworking of all manner of things.” You must change the way you live in order to have a transformed life.

The Gospel reminds us of Jesus’ commitment to leveling the playing field, so to speak. My former bishop, Doug Fisher, calls this, “Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion, and hope.”  It is Good News, though it is not easy, not without considerable cost for those who are followers of Jesus and called to a particular way of living and seeing the world.  This business of being part of the Jesus Movement and to “walk the way of Love,” of working with God’s Holy Spirit “to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it,” to quote our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, is no easy feat.

To fully experience God’s grace, to know God’s love and feel God’s presence, requires that we look at ourselves and others with God’s eyes, God’s ears, God’s heart.  It means living our lives with an embodied faith, with Jesus as model, as well as guide.  It is aspirational and incarnational.  As we seek deeper understanding and to move further into the heart of God, we act in ways that acknowledge others are beloved and beloved in the way that Jesus would choose them first.  And, as odd as it sounds and as hard as it is to believe, this is not about exclusion, even exclusion of “you who are rich…you who are full now…you who are laughing now…”.  It is radically inclusive. It is about realizing that God has provided all that is needed for everyone – every single person born and living in every single circumstance – to thrive in God’s world.  The blessed are those who know that this is possible only with God’s help, by God’s grace, and who choose to live their lives that way, offering what they have to the good of others.

When I read Luke’s version of the beatitudes, with the corresponding woes, I am comforted, my heart is gladdened, the challenge to my privilege notwithstanding. Luke brings Jesus’ message of blessing and grace to the most basic terms: poverty, hunger, sadness, and loss, all of which are real and prevalent, all of which can be helped if we with privilege and resources choose to live our lives generously and with an openness of heart.  Sharing what we have and paying good attention to the accidents of birth and other circumstances that prevent others from achieving the same, is one of the most important and necessary aspects of Christian discipleship.  Through it we actively live the “love your neighbor” command, all while we grow in faith and experience God’s love and grace in deeper and more meaningful ways.

When I read this Gospel, I can almost hear Jesus saying:

Blessed are you who know you have need, for you can love others.  Woe to those abide in your privilege, for you fail to love fully.

Blessed are you who love others well, for you choose to love me.                                        Woe to those who fail to love fully, for you are blind to my grace.

This thing called calling

This is my sermon (more or less because I preach without notes) from February 10th, the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany.  The lectionary for the day is here.

Today’s lectionary is all about calling, that invitation from God to share in the realization of God’s dream for the world.  We start with the calling of Isaiah, one of the most beautiful stories of someone hearing and responding to a call after a significant life experience.  We hear something similar in the Epistle, though perhaps not as directly, with Paul recounting his conversion from persecutors of followers of Jesus to, well, St. Paul.  And this Gospel, the story of Jesus gathering some of his apostles whose calling it will be to “catch” people, is pretty familiar to most of us, I bet.

Some of you, because you served on the vestry and search committee when I was called to be your rector, have heard about my call to ordination.  Because I think it helps to illustrate the message we are hearing today, I offer a couple bits of it here.

I first heard God call me on Good Friday during the veneration of the cross.  “Heard” is a funny word.  It wasn’t an actual voice, more a full body knowing that God wanted me to do what the priest was doing.  The fact that I didn’t really know what the priest was doing because he was speaking in Latin and I didn’t understand Latin didn’t matter at all.  This call came to me in the Roman Catholic Church (I attended that Church with my mother and the Episcopal Church with my father until I was 12.) so the fact that woman were not yet being ordained in the Episcopal Church may have been the least of my problems, a point the nun I first mentioned it to made clear in no uncertain terms.  But I digress…

Fast forward about 40 years.  As part of the formation process in the Episcopal Church, postulants and candidates undergo psychological testing.  In the Diocese of Massachusetts, where I was ordained, this means multiple visits with two different psychologists, a primary who focuses more on conversational assessment and the other a battery of testing.   During the session with the primary guy when he was reviewing with me the results of my testing, there was only one surprise: I tested high on a scale that measures risk tasking.  Me – the girl, now middle-aged woman, who followed the rules and lived a pretty low-risk kind of life – tested high for risk taking!  This made no sense.  Risk takers jump out of planes with balloons on their backs, something I would never, ever, ever do.  Risk takers moved to foreign lands where they knew not another soul and had only perfunctory understanding of the language, something I wish I’d had the courage to do when I was younger.  Or, in my job as a social worker, less healthy risk taking was the reason people became my clients.

The psychologist saw my confusion and immediately knew why.  He said, “Paula, think about what you are doing.  You have entered a process that requires you to make huge changes in your life, giving up a career you are devoted to and have worked hard to establish reputation and success.  Your family has had to make adjustments to accommodate your schooling and everything else you are required to do.  You are leaving the parish you love.  You have no guarantee of a job when you graduate.  Furthermore, you are doing all of this with no way of knowing if, in the end, the bishop will consent to ordain you.  I’d say that’s risk.    And yet you willingly do it. You asked to be allowed to do it. It’s a big risk with the potential for heartbreak.”  His words describe calling to a T.   Calling is about responding to God at work in your heart.

My friend, Sue, used to talk about the difference between “head” faith and “heart” faith.  She was pretty clear that it is the heart faith that changes your life, though certainly using one’s head is not a bad thing.  When I was discerning my call she would remind me that my head could get in the way because what I was doing was not logical.  My life was good.  I was happy.  I had a beautiful family I would do anything for.  I had a job I loved, and friends I enjoyed spending time with.  I had three kids to put through college and a mortgage.  It was crazy to risk all of that with absolutely no way of knowing if all of the seemingly kazillion other people who would need to see in me what I felt God still wanted me to do.  I could, literally, do everything right, follow all the rules, and not be ordained at the end. And yet I could not, at that time in my life, do anything else and be faithful to God.

The good news for the world is that calling is not limited to those who seek ordination, are hanging out with kings and seraphs, are blinded on the road to Damascus, or run into Jesus after a bad night of fishing.  God’s Holy Spirit is working in and through all of us all of the time.  Our job  is to listen for what the Spirit is saying and then respond.  So much of what God is saying to us is not even stuff we need to try to figure out.  The Bible is full of God’s expectations, God’s dreams.  Jesus showed us how to translate those dreams into action: he sought out sinners and outcasts to offer them love and compassion.  Jesus challenged the status quo. He looked beyond what we can see to see who God created.

Jesus loved.  Jesus loved unconditionally.  Jesus loved big. Jesus told us to love big, to love unconditionally.  Jesus told us to open our hearts to be a part of bringing God’s dream for the world to life right now.  And that doesn’t require all of us to change our lives in the ways that being ordained changed mine.  What it does require is that we listen to God and then act in some way on what we hear, in big ways and small.

Imagine what the world would be like if we all responded to God’s call for us to love one another.  What if we looked at the poor and the hungry with our hearts, recognizing beloved children of God?  I can’t say for sure exactly how God would have any one of you respond, but I do know it would not be by saying, “But it’s too expensive to feed and house and give medical care to all those people.”  That’s a human head response, not a Jesus heart response.

What would happen with our LGBTQ brothers and sisters if we looked at them with our hearts?  Imagine what the world would be like, imagine how their lives and ours would be changed, if we got to the point where we dropped the “LGBTQ” and just said “brothers and sisters.”  Imagine if we saw people of color as simply “people.” This is how God sees them.

And all those families separated at the border?  I can’t imagine that we would have literally countless numbers of children lost in a system that doesn’t know who they are, where they are, or how to get them back to their families.   Imagine how this would be different if we saw with our hearts children who have parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, who love them and are grieving for them.  Imagine if we recognized all of them, children and adults, as beloved children of God. I don’t have the answer to the huge problem this is, but I do know we could not possibly continue acting as we have, justifying the horrific toll this is taking on them because we say we lack resources or infrastructure or whatever of the excuses we are using to say this is okay or necessary.

Calling is about listening faithfully.  Calling is about responding meaningfully.  Calling is about being the best you God created you to be.  How is God calling you?

 

 

Unexpected roads: The transformational wisdom of the magi

The manuscript from my sermon on The Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2019.  The link to the lectionary is here.

Have you ever gone to meet someone or to do something and have it turn out differently than you thought it would?  Maybe you’ve heard stories about someone and carry those stories with you into a meeting. You go into the meeting prepared to react in particular ways, to have feelings like those of whoever has told you the stories.  And then something odd happens.  You meet this person and it is as if he or she must be someone else.  Your experience is so different than you were told to expect, that you find yourself wondering if it is the same person.

Maybe you’ve agreed to do a favor for a friend or co-worker.  At first it seems like it makes sense but then…after you’ve actually started in on whatever it is, something changes and you think, “Ahh…not so much.”   So you change things up.  You listen to whatever is telling you something is not right. You go in a different direction.

The wise men in today’s Gospel are kind of like that.  We call them “wise men” but their real title would be “magi.”  Magi were people from Persia or Babylonia.  They were not Jewish.  They were not kings.  They likely were astrologers who believed that the stars always shine a bit differently whenever a king is born or crowned.  Back in those days it was customary for people to travel great distances to show their respects by bringing gifts to new kings, so the magi set out from their homes to do just that.

Along the way they run into King Herod, who asks them to come back and tell him where to find the newborn king.  It seems they agree to do that, and why wouldn’t they?  Herod says he wants to be able to visit the baby and show his respects.  That probably would have made complete sense to the magi.  After all, it’s what people do.

But …something happens.  The magi follow the star and find the place where the baby Jesus lay.  Before even seeing Jesus,  “they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10).  Just being in the place where the infant lay, they were overwhelmed with joy.  Wow!  And then they meet Jesus and it can’t have been what they expected.  A newborn king born into poverty?  Lying in a feeding trough?  No trappings of wealth or privilege?   Suddenly this isn’t just a polite visit to make nice with a new king.  This isn’t what they expected. This is different.  Sure, they go on and pay their respects as planned, they give Jesus the gifts they brought.  But they don’t go back to Herod as agreed. They have a dream and decide to heed its warning. They return home by another road.

One of the most amazing things about this story – something we don’t think about that often – is that the magi didn’t know what we know today.  They didn’t have 2000+ years of history to help them understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t Jewish so they didn’t even have the Hebrew Scriptures with the prophets’ foretelling of the birth of the Messiah.  We’ve all heard the stories of Jesus’ life, with all the miracles and the parables and the absolute commitment to love and justice.  We have Easter and the Resurrection.  We are part of a Church that is founded, that gets its very name, from the reality of those things.

The magi didn’t have those things.  Those things hadn’t even happened yet.  The magi had themselves and their experience in the world.  They were intelligent men, learned men, some of the scientists of their day. They were courageous and curious, traveling great distances to learn more about the stars.  And they were willing to change their plans when it made sense.

They had something else we have today – what all people for all time have had and will always have – God fully present and at work in their lives.  What the magi responded to that day in their encounter with the baby Jesus is the God who is present to all of us even when we do not know it.  Even when we do not understand it.  Even when we don’t know we are seeking God.  In following that star to the place where the baby Jesus lay, they got the answer to a question they probably did not know they were asking.  That was the overwhelming joy.

They felt God’s presence up close and personal and it changed their lives.  God had come into the world in a new and different way and they were curious enough and courageous enough to let go of their plans and their expectations.  Through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we, too, get to experience God in new and different ways, all of the time. We are able, as were the magi, to live with a curiosity and a willingness to be changed by the new, by the unexpected, by any of the myriad ways God will show God’s grace and love to us.  That isn’t always so easy, though, is it?

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one here who has had the experience of God’s presence in a new or different way and known it at the time.  I’m probably not the only one who has said, “Thank you, God, for being with me in this way at this time,” and then gone right back to doing whatever it was I was doing.  Living with the kind of curiosity and openness to God that leads to changed hearts and minds, can be a challenge.  It often is easier to rely on the planned, the familiar, the status quo, to accept the change that comes in surprising, unexpected, even overwhelmingly joyful ways.  And, yet, that is what the magi teach us.  They teach us to be open to the ever present invitation from God to journey deeper into the heart of God and to let that set the course of our lives.

As we journey through the season after the Epiphany and beyond, may each of us be curious enough and courageous enough to feel the overwhelming joy that is ours through Jesus Christ.  May we be open to changes of mind and heart as we follow where the Living Spirit guides us, trusting in the presence of God at all times, in all places. May each of us welcome God’s presence with joy and express our gratitude to God in ways that make a difference in the world. Amen.