Surprisingly important…

This is my sermon from December 9th, the Second Sunday of Advent, more or less… The link to the lectionary is here.  We use Track 1.

Today’s Gospel is one that is pretty well known.  For many people, John the Baptist, traveling the countryside, proclaiming the coming of Jesus, evokes images of camel hair cloaks and meals of locusts and honey.  I’ll admit that when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” in my mind’s ear I am singing, “Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord.  Pre-e-e-pare ye, the way of the Lord” from “Godspell.”  It’s an important message, sometimes told in catchy and memorable ways.

You might end up wondering, then, why I am not going to preach this message, at least not at the start of this sermon.  Instead, I am going to focus on two verses that tend not to get much attention, verses that I admit I know are there but haven’t given much thought since I passed my New Testament and Church History classes in seminary.

Bishop Doug Fisher, who was my bishop in Western Massachusetts, spoke about these verses at diocesan convention in October.  I dare say he caused a couple hundred clergy and lay delegates to scratch their heads when he challenged us to name the “two most important verses in the Bible” and then quoted the first two verses of today’s Gospel:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

Yep.  Lots of mystified delegates.

Bp. Fisher is a wise man, so of course the confusion was cleared up when he explained his thinking.  He reminded us that these two verses are the verses in the Gospel which firmly and unequivocally ground Jesus in a particular time and place.  These verses give Jesus political, social, economic, religious, and historical context.  It occurred to me that, just as for readers of a certain age who hear the name Franklin D. Roosevelt and think “New Deal” or hear the name John F. Kennedy and think “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Luke’s community and the earlier followers of Jesus would have heard Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, etc. and had an understanding of what it meant to be living in Jesus’ time.  They would have heard and understood Luke’s Gospel though the lens or filter of that particular context.

And this is point at which I start to share my thoughts about Bp. Fisher’s contention.

This is different than the times we are given Jesus’ genealogy, as in the first chapter of Matthew, which seems to go on and on and on…detailing Jesus’ ancestry.  Don’t get me wrong, this is important, too, although quite frankly it can be hard to follow and has been known to provoke a bit of boredom.  While this helps us to understand Jesus in the context of generation upon generation of family, what it doesn’t do is tell us anything about the times in which Jesus lived his life on earth.  And that to me is the crux of it, why I agree with Bp. Fisher that these two verses are so incredibly important.  In some significant ways, understanding that context helps us to answer the question, “Why Advent?”  And, I dare say, it goes beyond understanding Advent better.   It helps us to understand in deeper, more profound and life-changing ways why it is we even celebrate Christmas.

So why is the social, political, economic, religious, and historical context important to understanding Advent and Christmas?  Because they tell us that Jesus didn’t enter a world that was not in need of God.  The in-breaking of God into the world in the person of the baby Jesus happened at a time that was far less than perfect, a time that was not all that different than our own in terms of violence, conflict, misuse of power, economic and social injustice, gender inequality, and…The list goes on and one.

Jesus was born into the world at a time and in a place that so closely resembles our own that one wonders if humans have made any progress at all.  This adds layers of meaning to the “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” message that is such a huge part of Christian understanding.  Perhaps it should be written, “God so loved the crazy, out-of-control, mixed up, messed up world and the broken and deeply flawed humans who inhabit it that he sent his only Son…”

That is the Good News, isn’t it?  That God so loved the world as the world was, not as God dreamed it to be, that Jesus was born.  The unconditional, undefinable, beyond-human-comprehension love of God compelled God to take our human form to live as one of us, to live among us, to show us what it means to be loved by God and to love as God would have us love.  No easy task then.  No easy task now.

But God did it.  Jesus lived and died as one of us.  Jesus lived with us, loved us, and was killed by us.  And still Jesus lives, as our Christian faith tells us.  The Holy Spirit continues to work in and through us, inviting us and guiding us and, if I’m any example, occasionally cajoling us to accept the invitation to journey deeper and deeper into the heart of God.

Which brings me more directly to today’s Gospel.

John the Baptist got it!  He understood and was not shy about proclaiming the ways in which we humans need to shift our focus away from the distractions and influences of our human lives, to focus on Jesus, to accept the amazing grace that is God’s love.   In a way few others do, John the Baptist gets right to heart of it.  “Repent and prepare to meet Jesus!”  You can’t get much clearer than that for an Advent message.

“Repent” means to turn away, to feel regret or remorse, a kind of letting.  For us, as for those in John the Baptist’s and Luke’s times, the admonition would be to let go of all the distractions and influences of our time and our place that keep us stuck in our brokenness, to focus on Jesus and living our lives as Jesus would have us do.  Think about what happens when you turn away from something – you turn toward something else.  Along that path there may be lots of other something elses, some we may notice, some we may not.  But the Holy Spirit notices.

I know that when I am intentional about turning away from the distractions of my life to focus on God, to letting go of my human flaws and frailties, to which I am often oddly and sadly attached, I find myself smiling. It occurs to me over and over again that, in the turning away from those things that are not of God, that are not life-affirming or life-giving, I get chance after chance after chance to seek to see God, to see Jesus in all sorts of people and places.  The wild and wonderful Holy Spirit will jump at the chance to use whatever opportunity I give her to show me how to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God, the invitation to transformation.  And I’m pretty sure she’d jump at your opportunities, too.

Last week I gave you a little challenge: to spend some time each day in prayer and reflection to help you prepare to meet the incarnate God as if for the first time.  Today I want to add a bit to that challenge: in the time you spend each day, carve a bit of that to focus on those things about which you want or need God’s forgiveness, those things you need God’s help to let go of so that you can turn away from them and toward God. Accept God’s forgiveness. Pay attention to the opportunities you can create so that the Holy Spirit can jump in and do her thing.  Remember, God does not need us to create huge spaces in order to fill them with immense grace.  Amen.



Imagining the people of God

This is more or less the sermon I preached on November 25th (I preach from the aisle without notes), my first Sunday with the faithful people of St. Stephen’s, Millburn NJ. The lectionary can be found here.  We use Track 1.

Before I get to the actual preaching, let me take a minute or two to tell you how happy my family and I are to finally be here with all of you.  My husband, Ron, and two of our three children, Sean and Kathleen, are here this morning. Sean lives in Princeton and Kathleen is a first-year at Smith College, so they will be around more than our middle child, Kevin. Kevin has recently completed two years of Peace Corps service in Peru and is traveling a bit in South America.  He’ll be back in the States in December and will spend some time here with us before settling in New Mexico.  I hope you take time to introduce yourself to them, as well as to me.  I also hope you are patient with us as we try to learn all your names.  Please don’t take it personally if we ask you to remind us of your name a time or two.

We will have lots of time to get to know each other so, for now, I will touch on just a few of the details of who I am.  I am a graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  My discernment to the priesthood is a long story, quite literally, as I first felt called before women were ordained.  Before beginning formal discernment and through most of seminary, I worked as a social worker, doing both direct clinical work and management and administration. Prior to coming to St. Stephen’s, I served parishes in the Dioceses of Massachusetts and Western Massachusetts.  During those years I was bi-vocational, serving part-time in the parishes and part-time as a chaplain in hospice and a women and infants hospital.  I loved both aspects of my ministry, though over time I learned that I loved parish ministry in a more complete way and wanted to devote myself to it full-time.  With Kathleen, our youngest, in college, the time was finally right to make that change, and now we are in ministry together.

Although it’s only been a few months since I first met Maryalice, Roger, and the other members of the Vestry/Search Committee, it has seemed much longer than that because I have known since early in our conversations, that this is the place God is calling me to be.  I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to getting to know you and to being in ministry together.  I know that together we will learn much about how God’s Holy Spirit is at work in and through each of us and all of us together.

Although we can’t know for sure exactly where she will lead us, our faith assures us that the Holy Spirit will help us to move deeper into the heart of God and inspire us to do the work God has given us to do.  Together we will discern what that work is and how we will get it done.  Although there is no way to know exactly what it will look like, it’s a safe assumption that we will worship and pray together, will learn and grow together, will do good work in God’s world together, will laugh and cry together, and, if we are doing it right, will even fail and forgive together.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, which seems like a great day to begin our shared ministry because it reminds us of why we are together as a Christian community.  Today is the day we state what should be obvious to us all the time: that Jesus the Christ is the essential reason for our gathering together.  If we believe the truth that we are beloved of God and that Jesus is the Messiah, then we listen to Jesus’ voice.  And, if we listen to Jesus’ voice and believe it to be the voice of truth, then we can’t help but be motivated to live our lives differently than if we did not know or believe that truth.  This, my friends, will ground us in our shared faith as we begin the work of discerning how the Holy Spirit, who is “wild and free” (Bp. Douglas Fisher), is working in and through us here at St. Stephen’s.

Next week is the first Sunday in Advent, which means we will journey together from the beginning, if you will.  Knowing what we know and celebrate today, that the infant Jesus was the Living God’s inbreaking into the world, we will prepare to meet the incarnate God and then walk with him through his public ministry and to the cross, before celebrating anew the miracle and promise of the Resurrection.  As we do that, I want us to remember that all of it – from the birth of the baby right through to the empty tomb– is about one thing, and one thing only: that God created the world and all of us out of perfect love, love that is unimaginable, unconditional, indescribable, and never-ending.  It is grace, freely given and undeserved. It cannot be earned. It cannot be lost. It is the love that sustains and nourishes us.  It is the love that comforts and consoles us.  It is the love that strengthens us to live our lives and to partner in mission and ministry.

As we enter into our shared ministry, our task is to grow in that love, to move deeper into the heart of God.  The theologian Henri Nouwen talked about belovedness as both a state of being and becoming. We are beloved, that is a given, and we get to choose to live our lives acknowledging that truth for ourselves and with others.  If we can do that most of the time, with faithfulness and trust in God, with honesty and compassion, with patience and good humor, with creativity and imagination, loving our neighbors as ourselves, we will become the church God is calling us to be.

In a little while the choir will sing a Communion anthem and, if Kim and I had planned the music to coincide with the preaching, we could not have done any better.  The lyrics to that song capture well our call to live our belovedness as a state of being and becoming:

Imagine, imagine the people of God,
Imagine the people of God.
Believing, receiving,
becoming God’s love.
Imagine the people of God.

Seeking the way of Jesus Christ,
Trusting the courage to change.
Being God’s love with our neighbors and friends,
Imagine the people of God.

Trusting in God’s abundant grace,
Speaking the truth in love,
Nourished by the Spirit’s power,
We are your people, O God.

St. Stephen’s, you are the people of God, loved beyond your wildest imaginations. Believe that. Receive God’s love and endless grace as you become more and more who God created you to be. Live as Jesus would have you live. Trust that you have the courage to change, to be transformed. Be a beacon of God’s love to all you meet and all those you serve. Trust grace. Speak truth in love. And let’s imagine together where the power of the Holy Spirit will lead us. Amen.

Gentle Jesus? Radical Jesus!

This is more or less (I preach from the aisle without notes) the sermon I preached yesterday.  The lectionary we used is Jeremiah 11:18-20,  Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, and Mark 9:30-37.  The link is here.

Today’s Gospel gives us one of the most beloved images of Jesus.  At the end of the passage, Jesus has the apostles gathered around him.  He reaches out to a child, gathering the child into his arms, onto his lap.  This is the image of the loving, gentle Jesus so many of us call to mind when we think about him.  It’s the child-focused equivalent of that other gentle favorite, the good shepherd.

And while it is true that Jesus is loving, Jesus is gentle, when this is the image of Jesus on which we choose to focus, we completely ignore the fact that this passage is about something very different.  This passage is about the radical Jesus, the Jesus who defies the societal norms and challenges our very human expectations and standards.  This is Jesus giving us yet one more example of how it is we are to live our lives with him

I invite you to think about what you know about children…Think about the complete dependency of babies and very young children.  They need a responsible someone to take care of them and their most basic needs for food, shelter, nurturance, just so that they can live and grow.  Children are, by virtue of not being adults, weaker, more vulnerable, and in need of care.  Their very survival depends upon their having someone to depend upon, and they let us know in their own ways what they need (think crying, whining, demanding to be fed, wrapping their little bodies around legs, and such).

Children show us what it is like to be weak, to be vulnerable, to need and to accept care.  They show us what it is to trust that our very survival depends not on ourselves but on someone not us.  And they show us that it is okay to ask for what we think we need or what we know we need.  We may not always get it, but it is okay to ask.  How many of us are as comfortable as children in our prayer lives?

As they grow older and start to talk and to show their personalities in more socially outgoing ways, they begin to ask the question I think I came to dread with my children: “Why?”  Although to tired and overworked parents (and other responsible adults) there never seems a time when the question is not asked, even when it has been answered before, it is a good question.  It epitomizes their curiosity with and wonder about the world around them.  It is not asked to be contrary, but rather as a way of saying, “Hmm…I see that this thing is this way and I want to know more about it.”  Children are so beautifully accepting of life and diversity in life, while also wanting to understand all they can about it.

Children show us what it is like to accept what is, while also asking questions to satisfy their seemingly insatiable curiosity.  Can you imagine how transformed life would be if we all approached God with childlike awe and wonder?

And then children do what children do: they use that learning and experience in ways intentional and not to continue to grow, to refine their questions or to discover new ones. They do this in so many ways, including changing their minds and deciding that what they knew yesterday or what they had to have yesterday is now not true at all. (I’m thinking of the umpteen times I heard from one of my children, “I don’t like to eat…” when the day before they were sure they would die if they didn’t have whatever it was that is now unwelcome on the plate.)  Can you imagine how different life would be, how different we would be, if we were as open as children to the possibility that what we think we know about God deserves a bit more reflection, a bit more study, or a bit more prayer? Or perhaps it deserves to be set aside to make space for new insight, new learning.

In summary, children bring their full selves to their lives, and they do it over and over again, day after day, week after week, and on it goes.  That’s not a bad way to approach relationship with God.

I’ve been talking about our relationship with God on the individual or one-t0-one level.  It’s just as important to talk about our relationships with each other.  This is Jesus after all, and Jesus is never only about individual relationship.  Jesus calls us into a specific kind of discipleship, the kind that is willing to defy the status quo, to loosen our hold on some of the things our flawed humanity tells us are important. It’s the love-your-neighbor-as-I’ve-loved-you kind of discipleship, which really is the only kind.

Imagine being one of the twelve.  You’ve been hanging out with Jesus, witnessing his ministry in the community.  You’ve been with him when he touched people considered outcasts, healing them of all sorts of ailments.  You’ve heard him speak out against the government and the structures that support the status quo, including challenging some of the religious practices that are deemed necessary to right relationship with God.  All of this is pretty indicative of a leader unlike any you’ve ever met before, the kind of guy who takes risks and does things differently, defiantly sometimes, but always with active love  for the other.  You’ve signed on to this plan. And then Jesus tells you that he is going to be tried, convicted, and executed, all before rising from the dead on the third day.

And your response?  You step back and talk amongst yourselves about who is the best, who is the greatest?  You clearly know this is the wrong response because when Jesus asks about it, your initial reaction is silence.  You’ve seen what you’ve seen and heard what you’ve heard, and still your response is to compete, to jockey for the “prime” position? Really?

But Jesus doesn’t miss a beat.  Instead he overlooks your immaturity – not childlike awe and wonder or  demanding curiosity, but self-centered immaturity – and gives you a completely radical way of understanding what it means to welcome him.

Jesus tells you that to welcome him, which is in fact welcoming God, you must welcome those considered the least among you. (Remember that children in Jesus’ time were not cherished in the same way we cherish children today.  They were born and raised with an eye to how they would contribute to the well-being and sustenance of the family and community, if they lived into adulthood.)  You must welcome the weak, the vulnerable, the dependent.  You must cast aside your ideas of who is important, who is worthy of your time and attention, to take up the cause of people with no apparent value to you and your life.  You are to offer hospitality, to care for those who have nothing to offer you in return.  It is the doing of that, not your wealth or your status or some other measure of “greatness,” that will please God.

This, my friends, is radical Jesus at his radical best.  Jesus is calling us into the kind of discipleship that changes how we live our lives.  In reminding us that he came to show us how to live life in vastly different ways than we think are important, Jesus calls us to life-affirming, transformative relationship with him.  We are to approach this journey deeper into the heart of God with awe and wonder, with curiosity and hope, aware of our weakness and our vulnerability, trusting that God will give us all that we need to thrive.  And then we are to go out into the world to do the work that God has given us to do, to love others, to serve others, to do as Jesus would have us do, with kindness and gentleness of heart.



Starting fresh

This is the sermon I preached today, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached today,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.  We are using Track 2.

In the Episcopal Church, it is almost unheard of for an ordained person, whether that person be deacon or priest, to serve in his or her sponsoring parish.  The sponsoring parish is the parish that discerned ordained vocation with the clergy person, raising them up for ordination, so to speak.  Though the person may go back once or twice after ordination, or even occasionally to do supply, serving as the assigned deacon or the rector or priest-in-charge is, essentially, a “no go.”  And there is good reason for that.

For example, my sponsoring parish, where my husband and kids are still members, is now beginning a search.  Their rector of nine years left just last week.  As word of her move made its way around and at her going away party, several people asked me if I could “come back.”  My answer to them was a flattered and loving, “No!”  Begging the question that I serve here with you, there are larger issues to consider, the primary one being that, although I have from time to time done Saturday supply for them (obviously before I began serving here), and we have all enjoyed that time together, as a more permanent option, it would not work out for them or for me.  We know each other differently than as priest and people, and there is no leaving that behind.

It’s the parochial equivalent of the teen-age breakup in which the kids promise to remain best friends.  It almost never works because there is no going back, no forgetting or truly moving beyond the relationship you had before.  In my case, there are still many people who remember me as the young mother whose husband was away in the Navy, trying to manage a job and getting to church with two little boys, and then having a third child.  I’m remembered as someone who always listened to, and sometimes gratefully took, the advice of my elders in the community. I’m the choir member, stewardship chair, vestry member, search committee chair, food pantry volunteer, reluctant holiday fair chairperson, friend, and… What I am not is their priest.

Jesus has a bit of a similar experience in today’s Gospel.  In what is the third of three consecutive weeks of stories about how those around him view Jesus’ authority, we hear Jesus say, ““Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”  Jesus says this after the people who likely have known him longest, and may know him best, essentially say, “This kid is getting too big for his britches.  Does he forget that we know he is Mary and Joseph’s son?  Look!  We know the whole family.  Where does he get off thinking he’s got that kind of authority over us?”

At this time in his ministry, Jesus has been out and about in the community for a while, gathering people to him, preaching his message, and modeling how to live as God intends. I’m pretty sure word of the miracles Jesus did, perhaps including the calming of the sea and the stilling of the winds (the story we heard two weeks ago) and the healing of the woman with the hemorrhages and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (from last week’s Gospel) would have made it to his hometown.  And, while people seem to accept that he can do those things, we are told “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  People can accept the healing of specific illnesses but they cannot accept his authority to bring a new way of being, a way in which all people are reconciled to each other and to God.  Because they know him and have known him as they do, they cannot wrap their heads or their hearts around the idea that he is the Messiah, the incarnate God.

This is true about our relationships with God, too.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to, mostly in my work as a chaplain, who are sure that they cannot be loved or accept God’s love because of some way they’ve felt about God or something they have done in their life.  Maybe they’re angry with God because they have cancer or a child has died or anyone of the myriad ways our human-ness means life does not seem fair or kind. Even though they truly want to move beyond the anger or the fear or the lack of faithful behavior, they cannot quite get past it.

The good news for us in today’s Gospel is that Jesus tells us he understands this and he gives us some insight into how it is that he is different than us, that God does not hold onto or get caught up in anything that has gone before the very moment we are in.  Jesus tells the disciples to go out into the countryside to do what they do, to be who they are, without trying to plan for the usual way of being greeted, bringing only what they need to do the work they are given to do, to be who they are.  They are not to try to plan for every eventuality or to meet their own needs.  No food.  No money.  Only one tunic.  Wear your sandals, which, among other things, would make shaking the dirt off your feet much easier.  And, while we often hear “testimony against them” as punitive, I’m not so sure we can assume that.  It may be an indication of the reality that we are not always ready or able to meet God where we are. God gives us opportunity after opportunity to invite God into our hearts and lives, though God also gives us the free will to decide to forego the invitation.

The Scriptures tell us in at least a few ways that every day with God, every moment with God, is a new one.  God knows us fully and completely, God knit us in the womb, God knows us better than we know ourselves.  It’s frightening, I know, and yet God invites us to move deeper into God’s heart without any desire to hold onto the ways we’ve been unfaithful, the things we’ve done wrong, or, I suppose, even the things we’ve done well or faithfully.  What God wants is for us to want to be in relationship with God, and for us to leave behind any of the baggage we carry so that the journey brings us closer to the realization of God’s dream.  God wants us to recognize Jesus’ authority, Jesus’ love, Jesus’ mercy, compassion, and hope.  God wants us to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us to bring about peace and the reconciliation of all people to each other and to God.  God wants to be invited in, to be welcomed in our hearts and lives.

Healing one and all

This is the sermon I preached last week, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.  We used Track 2 with Lamentations.

I’ll admit:  I love the miracle stories in the Gospel.  They tell us so much about who and whose we are.  Even more than that, they tell us so much about the nature of God and God’s commitment to God’s creation.  These stories tell us about God’s dream for the world.

And I’ll confess: as pastor and chaplain, I’m not always so sure about the stories of miraculous healing.  Those stories invariably raise questions of why some people are healed and others are not.  They raise questions about why the prayers of some seem to be answered so fully and completely, while the prayers of others seem to fall on deaf ears.

This week, as I was reading and praying with today’s lectionary, and talking about it with a friend, I wondered if it’s possible that we are missing the point of the healing stories, at least some of the time.  What if they are less about the healing of the physical ailment and more about God’s answering prayers we don’t even know we have, giving us something we may not even know we need?

Today’s Gospel, with the two seemingly unrelated healing stories, is a good example of the questions that occurred to me in my prayer and reflection.  I share with you now what I think today’s Gospel really is about:

  1. God looking beyond what we think we need and responding to the needs we don’t know we have; and
  2. God reminding us of the need to have faith even when it seems we have come to the end of the road.

And, to top it all off, God does that by acting in ways that are unexpected or, even, as some might say, “not right.”

Let me tell you what I mean…

At the beginning of today’s Gospel we hear of Jairus’ plea to Jesus to heal his daughter.  This is happening after Jesus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a raging storm, the story of Jesus’ calming the seas and stilling the winds from last week’s Gospel.  Jesus and the disciples get to the shore to be greeted by a crowd of people, Jairus among them.  Jesus hears his plea and together they head off toward Jairus’ house.  Given Jairus’ position in the community, as a leader in the synagogue, I’m pretty sure it would have surprised no one that Jesus would listen to him and attend to his needs.  Jairus is a man with authority and stature in the community, likely used to making requests and having people respond in the ways he asks.

So, here they are, leaving the shore and heading to Jairus’ house, with the crowd following along.  From somewhere in the crowd comes someone who touches Jesus’ cloak and, without making a specific verbal request, receives some of Jesus’ healing power.  Jesus is unsure of who did it, as are his disciples.  What happens next probably surprised many, if not all, of those gathered.  A woman, suffering from a bleeding disorder, steps up and admits it was she who touched Jesus!  A woman touching a strange, unrelated man in public would have gotten attention, even if the woman were not someone who was considered ritually unclean and therefore an outcast in the community.  In all likelihood, she is someone who should not have been on the same side of the road as Jesus, never mind being in the crowd and touching him.

I imagine Jesus’ response to the woman was about as shocking as her behavior. People would have expected a religious leader to admonish the woman, to remind her of her status as an outcast, and to send her back into exile.  But what does Jesus do?  He listens to her and then tells her that her faith has made her well.  He provides healing.

He heals the woman’s physical ailment, but that, my friends, is only a part of what Jesus does, and perhaps not even  the biggest part of what he does.  Because in heeding her prayer and healing her body, he brings her back into the community.  She is no longer an outcast.  She can take her place with her family, friends, and neighbors, and live a life that has been denied to her because of her illness.  She is made whole.  That in and of itself is truly amazing, but the story does not end there. Her family, friends, and neighbors can once again benefit from the gifts she has to offer and from being in relationship with her.  The community is made whole.  It’s as if Jesus uses the occasion of her physical healing to model a new way of being, of understanding how to be in relationship, of the power and importance of reconciliation.

Of course, that takes a bit of time, enough time that Jairus and Jesus get the word that Jairus’ daughter is dead.  His friends see no point in troubling Jesus any further.  They have given up hope.  But Jesus continues on.  When he gets to the house, he says simply, “Young girl, get up” and she does.  And, as with the healing of the woman at the shore, this healing extends beyond the physical ailment of the daughter.  When she arises from the dead, Jairus’ family is made whole once again.  Obviously, for any family that would be incredible, wonderful news.  Given that Jairus is a religious leader in a time when the adage “the sins of the father…” was taken quite seriously, his daughter’s healing also means that he maintains his credibility as a righteous man, as a leader in the community.  Again, physical healing occurs and relationships are restored, as Jairus’ friends and family learn not to lose faith, even in the midst of seemingly hopeless situations.

These stories teach us much about the nature of God and how God understands healing and reconciliation.  It seems to me they are especially relevant- poignant perhaps- in this time in the life of our country and the world.  In times of such immense and wide-ranging conflict, are reminded that God pays attention to all of us, to each of us, while, at the same time, we are reminded that God does not prioritize the needs of one over the needs of another.  The measures of success and worthiness we see and value are not God’s. The focus of God’s healing is not limited to a particular person or ailment, but to the reconciliation of all people to Gods’ self and to each other.

In these stories we are given two seemingly contradictory models of faithfulness: the audacious faith of the woman and the humility of Jairus.  My guess is that, at some time or another, all of us have needed to approach God with the boldness of the outcast woman, in her own surreptitious way demanding that Jesus’ power and authority be extended to her.  My guess, too, is that at other times we have needed to approach God more humbly, as Jairus, the leader of the synagogue does, when he pleads for his daughter’s health in public, more or less literally “before God and everybody,” as the saying goes.

The learning for us in this is that God is present to us as we are, not in our perfection or as other people expect but just as we are. Whether we are bold and audacious like the woman or humbled in our desperation like Jairus, or something different all together, God is present and gives us more than we ask, God gives us what we need. This is completely consistent with God’s dream of reconciliation to and with all people, and God’s willingness to give us healing in the ways we know enough to ask, and in ways we may not know we need.  And God does this, as God does everything, in the ways God does because God is God.  That is Good News indeed!

Stilling the storm of fear

This is the sermon I preached last week, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.

There is a lot in the Scriptures about worry and fear, often from the perspective of “don’t worry, have faith.”  We hear these words from all sorts of characters, from angels and prophets to God.  In today’s Gospel, though it sounds like a question: “Why are you afraid?”, I don’t think it is really.  Jesus says, “Why are you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”  This sounds to me like the equivalent of, “Why are there still toys on the floor.  Didn’t you hear me when I said, ‘put them away’?” In context, “Why are you afraid?” sounds less like a question than a statement of frustration or disbelief.

Jesus and the disciples are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee when a storm comes up. The disciples are terrified, no doubt imagining the boat capsizing and being thrown into the raging sea.  But Jesus?  He’s not at all worried.  In fact, he’s not worried to the point that he asleep in the stern.  Asleep!  The storm is raging, the disciples are terrified, and Jesus is asleep.  They wake him up, he calms the winds and the sea, and then he questions their faith.  Inherent in the question is, “Don’t you trust me?  Don’t you know who I am?”

By this point, the disciples, maybe more than anyone else, should know who Jesus is.  They’ve been traveling the countryside with him, witnessing to his life, including some miracles.  Some of them have even been given the authority to cast out demons. How can they act as if they don’t trust that Jesus will protect them?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this – about the way our human fear colors our attitudes and perspectives, shapes our choices, and drives our behavior.  I’ve been thinking and praying about the decision to separate children and parents at the border, a decision that is devastating to children, to parents, to families.  It is a decision I believe is driven in part by fear.

Now, before I go any further, I want to say up front and clearly: This is not about partisan politics. It’s not about Republican and Democrats. It’s not about being anti-Trump or Sessions v. pro-Trump or Sessions.  It is political only to the extent the Gospel is political.  it is political only to the extent that Jesus’ life and example are political.  This is about how people of faith live their faith. It’s about how people of faith behave and make decisions consistent with their faith.  It is about how we, followers and disciples of Jesus, participants in the Jesus Movement, allow fear and anxiety, or anything for that matter, to create a gap between our faith and the teachings of Jesus, specifically the Great Commandment.

What is it about our fear and anxiety that takes us so far from “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

How is that people, that our country, has come to the place in which the life-altering decision to separate children and parents even begins to make sense?  Again, I think a large part of the answer is fear.  We’re afraid. Afraid of what we think we might lose if we let other people in.  Afraid of how our lives might change.  Afraid of what might happen to our sense of community, to our sense of shared identity. Afraid of losing jobs or power or authority. Afraid of confronting our privilege in whatever form it takes. Or maybe it’s more general than that.  Maybe we’re just plain afraid of people who don’t look like us or talk like us.  However, you cut it, it comes down to fear.  And it is a fear that leads us to make decisions that are contrary to our faith, that are belied by our sacred texts, both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, with all of the admonitions to love one another, to welcome the stranger, to liberate captives, and to care for the poor, the sick, the needy.

How do people of faith, especially those of us who claim Christian identity, reconcile these attitudes, these behaviors, these decisions?  Even if we are not among those who make the decisions, how do we reconcile our support of them or our failure to speak out against them.  How do we reconcile what we say we believe about God, about Jesus, with the power of our fear?  What in the decision to separate children and their parents even remotely sounds like “love your neighbor”?

On some level I get it.  In big ways and small we let our fear take the place of our faith, kind of like your reaction when your child darts into the middle of the parking lot and, rather than hug the child out of gratitude that she is safe, you yell at her for running off. Fear is strong.  Fear is powerful.  It gets the better of us.

But as people of faith, as followers of Jesus, we have to do better, we have to do our very best to rise about the tide of fear that is flooding our nation.  We have to seek the way of life-giving, life-affirming decisions and behaviors to show that we understand the Great Commandment and do actively love our neighbors.  Someone (I can’t remember who) once said, “Faith is everything I do after I say I believe.”  True faith is not a noun, but a verb. It is active, it accepts responsibility, it extends beyond belief.

So how do we do it?  How do we move to a place in which our fear no longer has the power to overwhelm us, to overpower our faith?  Imagine how the lives of these children would be different,  Imagine how we would be different if let faith in God be our perspective and then sought choices and made decisions consistent with that faith.    Imagine the outcome if we trusted Jesus to still the storm of fear within us and in it’s place invited the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in and through us, coloring our attitudes, shaping our choices, and driving our behavior.  Amen.

A holy mystery

This is the sermon I preached this week, Trinity Sunday, though perhaps I should say, “This is more or less the sermon I preached last week,” because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript or notes.  You can find the lectionary here.

Today is Trinity Sunday. As I was preparing to preach this week about a basic and foundational aspect of our Christian faith: God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I realized that I have never identified quite as closely with Nicodemus as I do this week.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is trying to explain a Truth to Nicodemus, who just is not getting it.  Nicodemus, who truly wants to understand, asks another question, to which Jesus gives essentially the same answer.  Still Nicodemus doesn’t quite get it and on it goes.  You can almost hear the pleading tone in Nicodemus’ voice and the frustration in Jesus’. You might wonder why it is that Jesus can’t say any plainer what he is saying, and why Nicodemus can’t understand what is being said. Because, like Nicodemus, we desperately want to understand what Jesus tells us because we know how important it is, it can be hard – really hard- to simply accept what Jesus is saying without really understanding it.

That is, my friends, a bit like I feel as I try to understand and then preach about the Trinity.  No matter how much I read, no matter how much I wrack my brains trying to remember all those discussions in seminary, no matter how much I pray, the Trinity is a bit elusive.  So, like any good Episcopalian, I head to The Book of Common Prayer to see what it might say…

In the “Historical Documents” section, beginning on page 867, there are the “Articles of Religion,” written in 1801 at our General Convention.  The very first item in the Articles is about the Trinity, which gives us a pretty good idea of how important it is:

I. Of Faith in the Holy Trinity.

There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of
infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in the unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

And on page 864, in the ancient Creed of Saint Athanasius, it says, among other things:

“…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance…But the whole three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal. So that in all things, as is foresaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.”

Little wonder, then, that Trinity Sunday is a Sunday in which we preachers often try to come up with some pithy, easy-to-understand explanation of the nature of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  You’ve probably heard some of these:

  • there is the egg: the whites, the yolk, the shell
  • there is water: liquid, ice, vapor
  • another favorite is the shamrock: three leaves all part of the same plant.

While there is no denying these provide images intended to ease our understanding, there is also no denying that these do nothing, really, to explain the Trinitarian God.  In fact, they do lots to detract from our understanding because they are limited by our imaginations and language.  We humans tend to forget that the God we know and try so hard to define defies our human understanding because, quite frankly, God is God and beyond our full comprehension.

So I am going to forego the temptation to provide an image of the Trinity. I am going to acknowledge as I stand here as your priest and pastor that the best explanation I can offer, the most helpful to you and me and us in our faith formation, our lives as Christians, is to say, “The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.”

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 questions that matter 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?
  • Are we able to accept the invitation to move deeper into the heart of God?
  • Are we willing to let go of our human need for intellectual understanding to allow ourselves to be transformed?

The essence of the Trinity is a mystery, a holy mystery, but a mystery nonetheless.

One of the ways I understand God, the one Substance in three Persons, the Trinity in Unity, co-eternal and co-equal, is that God is transcendent, incarnate, and immanent.

God transcendent is beyond all human experience. This is God unfathomable within the confines of human understanding and imagination.  God who created us in the divine image and likeness, God who created us for no reason other than perfect Love, because God is God, who understands what is in our hearts and minds more deeply than we do, and recognizes our need for the incarnate and immanent to support our understanding.

Without changing the Trinitarian Godhead at all, the transcendent God became incarnate in the form of Jesus. Jesus lived with us, as one of us. Jesus showed us how to live as God would have us live. Jesus told us and showed us what it means to truly love one another, to be willing to risk some or all of what we think is important to live in the ways that are truly important. Jesus lived to invite us into relationship with God in the ways that are truly life-giving, life-affirming. And Jesus died for us, not so that we would idolize or emulate his suffering, but so that we would understand the depth of God’s love for us. Jesus showed us by his human sacrifice that God’s love knows no bounds, no conditions. God loves because God is God.

As God had done since the dawn of time, Jesus promised us that we would never be alone. The Holy Spirit is God immanent, assuring us that God keeps God’s promises, and that we are never alone, God is always with us, working in and through us. We are graced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We are continually and constantly invited to move deeper into the heart of God.

God has been, is, and will always be at work in the world at all times for all time. Jesus, the man, lived in a particular time in a particular place with a particular group of people. The Holy Spirit brings past, present, and future together in relationship with the one God.

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.  And we are celebrating our heart’s desire, our willingness through our faith, to accept the grace that is the Trinity and to honor the gift that is our transformation.