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.

 

 

On love

This is the sermon I preached last week, the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 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.

A seminary colleague once said, “I hate to use the word ‘love’!”  She said this in response to another colleague who was talking about something, I don’t remember what exactly, and who said, “I just love …!”  To say that the rest of us were surprised is probably an understatement.  Shocked. Astonished. Speechless.  Those are words that begin to describe our initial reaction as we held our collective breath, waiting to see what would come next.

When the first colleague saw our reactions, she explained what she meant, which I will say did help quite a bit.  She went on to say that she thinks the word “love” is overused and so we have lost sense of what it means.

I think about this fairly often.  I am one who tends to use the word to describe my affection for things I like a lot.  You’ve probably heard me use it a time or two, perhaps in connection to something yummy, like hot fudge.  It is an easy word for many of us to use.  It kind of rolls off the tongue, if you’re in a hurry to say what you want to say: “I just love it!” You can savor the moment: “Thank you so much.  I loooove hot fudge.” Folks who are listening understand what you mean.

And yet my colleague was right.  We do run a danger of losing the full meaning, the potential impact, when we use a word too often or without thinking about the fullest of its meanings.

Today’s lectionary is all about love.  The Collect, the Epistle, and the Gospel talk about love.  And not in the way that I stand by my statement about loving hot fudge.  They are talking about love in the greatest sense.  The love God has for all of us.  The love Jesus showed us up close and personal, as it were.  The love that Jesus says we are to share with one another.

This is love in the most unimaginable, indescribable, and unconditional sense.  It is not an easy love, as is my deep enjoyment of hot fudge.  It is a love that often is not easy at all.

I talk to people all the time about their relationship with God.  I often find myself asking if there is any room in their heart or their mind for them to believe that God loves them.  And more times than I can count, the answer is “No” or “I’m not sure.”  When I ask if they can tell me more about that, the answer almost always is some version of “I’m not good enough.” Or “I don’t deserve it.” Or “How could God begin to love someone like me?”

It isn’t easy, sometimes, to believe that God could possibly love you all the time, regardless.  It isn’t easy to wrap your head around the kind of love that is freely given and undeserved.  The kind of love that you can never do anything to earn and never do anything to lose.  The kind of love that is yours for one reason only – that God is God.

I get it.  I’ve been there.  And I think some of why it is hard to believe is that we try to understand it from our human point of view.  There are limits to trying to understand God from our perspective, using our experiences, using our language.  And yet, there are also examples that help to point us in that direction.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that we are to love one another the way he loves us.  Now, for those of us who did not live with Jesus the man, we cannot know first-hand exactly what that means, though the Bible gives us some really good, clear clues.  We are to understand love as Jesus meant it, as Jesus shared it with the apostles and disciples, and with all he encountered as he went about his life. This is love that means respecting each other, treating each other with dignity,  paying close attention to each other, taking care of each other.

Love in this way means doing whatever we can to ensure that all God’s people – everyone – whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we have lots in common or nothing at all, has everything they need to survive and to thrive.  This is the kind of unconditional love that says, “I will do all in my power to see that you have everything you need to live a good life, to flourish.  Through my care of and for you, you will have an inkling of what it is to be beloved of God.”

Now, I can think of a couple of examples that come close to this kind of love from my own life:

  • You probably have heard me say that I have siblings. I am the oldest of four children born within 50 months, which is basically the assurance of some phenomenal sibling rivalry and lots of bickering.  Add to that mix the fact that my parents were foster parents for a number of years.  For a couple of years, from the time I was 10 to about 12, I was the oldest of seven, with the youngest being six years younger than I.  (And, yes, I think my parents must have been saints.)

Now, despite all the ways we very creatively and imaginatively came up with to show each other we did not always like each other, far be it for any of us to stand by  and let someone else say a bad thing, or cause some kind of trouble for one of us.  In those moments, it became crystal clear that the love we shared as a family was far greater and far stronger than any of our child-like and childish squabbles.

  • I’m pretty certain that I am not the only parent or grandparent here at Grace who has said once or twice or a bunch of times to one of our children or grandchildren, “It’s a good thing I love you because I don’t much like you right now.” And this to a child I love so unconditionally, a child I would willingly lay down my life for without question or hesitation.

This is part of what my colleague was reacting to: the conflating of like, even liking a lot, with love.  And nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus told us to go out and like each other.   No.  What Jesus says quite simply (and repeatedly) is that we are to love one another as he loves us.  And that, my friends, is not easy.  In fact, it is sometimes one of the hardest things we can be asked to do.

Sure, I can choose to not spend time with someone, for any number of reasons.  I can choose to remove someone as a friend on Facebook or take their phone number out of my phone.  Those are the decisions I get to make based on whether or not I like someone or have enough in common to want to spend my free time hanging out with them.  But what I can’t do, what I must never do, is to ever stop wanting what is best for them, to ever do anything that even begins to suggest I don’t think they are good enough to have a good life or to know that they are beloved of God.  In fact, I am to do all that I can to ensure that no one goes without what they need to survive and to thrive, to have a life that gives them a glimpse of the immense and unconditional love God has for all of us.

This is not always easy.  There are times when it seems so hard that it is easy to wonder if it is possible, hard enough that we throw our hands up or cover our ears or close our eyes to the ways in which we confuse like with unconditional love.  But I’ll tell you, there is no better way for each of us to express our gratitude, for us to thank God for loving us even when we don’t think we are lovable, when we know we’re not likable, than to take seriously Jesus’ call to love one another as he loves us.

Crosses

This is the sermon from yesterday, the Second Sunday in Lent (more or less, because I preach from the aisle without a manuscript) .  I preached on Mark’s Gospel (8:31-38).  You can find the lectionary here.

Today’s Gospel is another one of those in which I think, “poor Peter.”  Peter, who is eager to show that he knows who Jesus is, that he knows that Jesus is the Messiah.  Peter, who seems to believe full on that times have changed, that nothing is or ever will be the same because Jesus has come to fulfill the prophecy, gets it wrong yet again.  And we know that he continues to get it wrong, right up until the time he denies Jesus three times at Calvary.  Is this really the guy, the rock upon which Jesus built his church?

Can you imagine being Peter, sitting with the other disciples, listening to Jesus say that there is a whole lot worse to come?  Being so eager to show Jesus you know who he is, that you get what his being with you means, that you take him aside for a little pep talk?   “Hey, dude, whaddaya mean with all this talk of bad things happening?  Did you forget that you’re the Messiah? No one can mess with you!  You’re just having a bad day.”  Your heart is in the right place, right?  And then to have Jesus call you on your naivete?  And in such a way: “Get behind me, Satan!”…Get behind me… Satan?

I imagine Peter made the mistake so many of us who are followers of Jesus make: he believed the presence of the Messiah would mean no more cares, no more troubles, no more problems.  Everything would be rosy, a road paved with gold kind of life.  Peter’s image of the Messiah was the king with the crown and the fancy vestments, the unlimited resources, and the power and authority to make everyone behave well or else.

But what Jesus was telling Peter and the others is that he was not and is not that kind of king.  The incarnate God whose inbreaking into the world as the son of a laborer and his wife, was not and is not a fancy king focused on making things easy, but rather showing real people -us -how to make things right, to show us that we are the ones to help make it right. He entered the world as it was, full of broken people, willing to be with us as we are, and to teach us what it means to live humbly with one another, focused on God and God’s dream for the world.

And that means holding onto faith, trusting in God through the wilderness times, as we heard in last week’s Gospel. That means carrying whatever crosses we have to bear, as we continue to journey deeper into the heart of God.

The presence of God and crosses are not mutually exclusive.  In fact, it is only by the grace of God that we are able to carry the crosses we collect in this human life.  God really does give us what we need: courage, strength, wisdom, perseverance, good humor, companionship, you-name-it, to handle all that being human throws at us, piles on us.

Some crosses are big, heavy, like the literal cross Jesus carried to his death.  There are still places in the world where being Christian is tantamount to a death sentence. There are crosses of significant illness, of fractured relationships, of lost jobs and money problems.  There are the crosses of injustice and oppression, of othering and exclusion. Last week I talked about the human-made wilderness of gun violence, which means so many families and communities bear the cross of lives lost, of dreams shattered, such as in Parkland, Florida.  The list is probably as long and relentless as the ways in which we make life harder for ourselves and each other, as we live in ways that are contrary to God’s dream and to Jesus’ example.

We all have crosses and, if we are lucky, they are smaller, lighter, easier to bear, but most often we have crosses of various sizes and weights, some harder to bear than others.  As followers of Jesus, as disciples of Christ, we are called to make our way through the wilderness, carrying our crosses, knowing that Jesus is present with us in and through all things, and that we will come through to the other side.  Jesus never promised it would be easy, only that it would be worth it.  And, as Paul reminds us often in his letters, the promise is of the life eternal when the kingdom of God is fully realized, not of a particular, easy life in this day and age.  Sometimes that truth feels a bit like a cross, doesn’t it?

So, here we are, on the second Sunday in Lent some 2000 years after the first Easter.  We are carrying our crosses, whatever they are, as we are reminded that Jesus himself carried the cross of our salvation, however it is we understand that.  In some ways it seems that we have not moved any further along in the journey deeper into the heart of God than Peter and the first disciples.  In some ways it feels like we have gotten further behind.

As disciples today it seems important to remember we have knowledge and experience that Peter and the others did not have: we have the first Easter and the Resurrection. We know that Jesus lives in spite of an execution, in spite of all the ways we continue to deny him, in spite of all the crosses we continue to create.  Today, in this place, we have a visual reminder of the extent to which the incarnate God will go for us and with us: we have the cross with the crucified Jesus on the wall above the pulpit, which is appropriate to the season of Lent.

We also have the visual reminder of the fulfillment of promise from God, made possible through Jesus the Christ: we have the beautiful cross above the altar, above God’s Table, with the Christus Rex.  This is appropriate for an Easter people. We are reminded that Jesus triumphed over the cross and lives.  We are reminded that Jesus is present with us, now and for all time.  May this give us all that we need to continue our Lenten journey of repentance and prayerful reflection as we prepare to meet the Risen Christ again as if for the first time.

Middle bits of wilderness

I know I am not alone when I say that the Parkland school shooting feels different. It changed something in me.  Perhaps it is because I have finally had enough – though why the first or the second or the umpteenth school shooting was not enough is a question I take to God in prayer.

Perhaps it is because it occurred on the day of the Hallmark celebration of love and I heard one of the survivors say she initially thought the gunshots were Valentine’s Day balloons popping.  The innocence of that broke my already broken heart.

Perhaps it is because our youngest child and only daughter turned 18 on that day, and as I celebrated her burgeoning adulthood and increasing independence, I was wistful for the days that seem both like yesterday and so long ago when she was a perfectly formed and healthy 3 lb., 9 oz bundle of grace, who taught me for the third time that there are no bounds on love.

Perhaps it is because it was Ash Wednesday, the day Christians like myself enter into the season of solemn reflection and repentance by accepting a mark of our humility on our foreheads.  I know I have been stricken by my need to repent of my complicity in supporting a culture in which previously unspeakable violence is now commonplace. I know this more deeply as I listen to the despicable hubris of people who have the power and position to take meaningful action but who lack the moral authority and gumption to do so.

Perhaps it is for all of these reasons and maybe some I have not yet encountered in my consciousness. Whatever the reasons, the Parkland school shooting feels different and I am changed.

In my sermons this  past weekend, I preached about the Gospel (Mark 1:9-15):

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This is a Gospel that at times has reassured me and at other times terrorized me.  (An aside: I took a class in seminary called “Preaching Texts of Terror” and this is the Gospel passage I chose.)

Whenever I hear the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” or the similar words found in other Gospel stories, I imagine God saying those words to me, and my heart sings.  One of my favorite things to do as priest and pastor, as chaplain, as neighbor and friend, is to remind people that God feels that way about them, too.  You can probably imagine my unfettered joy when an eight-year-old boy told me that God said those words to his four-year-old brother when we baptized the little guy in the late fall.

I almost always, to the extent that I probably could say “always” and have it be true enough to be truthful. hear the final sentence as comforting and an assurance of the hope I feel that God’s dream for God’s creation will come to be.

It is the middle verses, those about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness, that can bring comfort – “Of course I wrestle with temptation.  Even Jesus wrestled with temptation!”- or terror – “How can I ever even begin to think I can resist this temptation when even Jesus had to struggle?”  It is a Gospel passage I come back to time and time again when I am in the midst of a struggle and need to hear the beginning and the end so that I can get through the middle bits.

This week it has touched me in a way I am challenged to articulate clearly, though I felt, and continue to feel, compelled to talk about it.  There is something to be learned, something I need to learn, about the juxtaposition of love and the wilderness as I do the prayerful work of repentance and seek to understand the ways I am called to act. I find that my heart is all bound up in an almost consuming need to do something, anything, so that our young people, our children, never have to wrestle with the middle bits of a terrifying wilderness that is strictly of human making.

I have taken this to God in my prayer.  I have asked and continue to ask for the courage and wisdom to live my faith more boldly in the face of the evil that would place anything above the safety and well-being of children. I am learning that I am willing to venture into the wilderness that is corporate greed and a weapons-strengthened self-centered fear of anyone different, or that same fear of loss of power over another.

I enter this wilderness to repent of my complicity in conveying to my daughter, and to daughters and sons everywhere, that anything is more valuable, more important than their safety or their lives. I am willing to go into the wilderness that is eradicating gun violence to use the privilege I have as a white, middle-class, educated, professional woman to speak to another kind of power, the humble power that I see in Jesus’ example of unconditional love.  My heart is all bound up in a call to ensure that the only message our children hear from those who are responsible to nurture and protect them is “You are beloved. Believe in this good news.”

 

The journey begins

This journey into blogging is beginning in a way that surprises me: with a sermon.  Although I preach a couple of times every week, I think I was expecting to post an article or other writing.  Yet here I am, preparing to share with who knows whom the sermon I preached today (technically, it was yesterday but because I have yet to go to bed, I’ll consider it all of a day) at Grace Church in Oxford, Massachusetts.   In case you are interested in the context, the Gospel for the day was Mark 9:2-9, one of the Transfiguration stories. 

Many years ago – many, many years ago, my grandfather, one of my heroes, shared some wisdom with me.  It is wisdom I have carried with me my whole life since. Before we had the conversation in which he imparted this wisdom, I had two really disturbing experiences, which I remember as happening within weeks of each other, when I was probably nine or ten years old.

I had a friend, a boy named Reggie, who was very dark complected.  He and I and two other girls, both blonde haired and blue/green eyed, as I was at the time, were playing in my yard.  And from a neighbor’s yard we suddenly heard a voice yell something I cannot fully speak out loud.  This guy, an adult neighbor, called the three of us “n***lovers.”  We were dumbstruck.  We stood there in horrified silence as we watched the tears stream down the face of our beloved friend.

The second experience happened at church.  The church was a place that was diverse economically, socially, and racially, and the place in my childhood perhaps most influential in forming my understanding of the diversity of God’s creation, of God’s beloved children.  I spent a lot of time with a friend who was a person of color.  We had a lot in common and participated in a number of activities, in and outside of church, together.  It had never occurred to me that this was unusual because it just was what friends did, what we did.  One day, a woman I had known my whole life and I loved, approached me and told me it was “nice of [me and my friends] to spend so much time with that colored boy.”  “Colored boy” was whispered in a somewhat frightened and conspiratorial tone.  Again, I was dumbstuck, so I did what I always did: I talked to my grandfather about it.  Although I didn’t understand racism at all, I wanted to understand why people were so mean. And that is when he said, “Chicken, no one has a change of heart until they need to.” (His nickname for me was “Chicken,” which I knew to be a term of endearment.) He then went on to tell me a story from his experience, the story about how he learned this himself.

He was born shortly after the turn of the 20th century to hard-working Irish-Catholic parents and grew up in Roxbury and Jamaica Plains.  To say that racial segregation was a part of his life would be an understatement.  It was a part of the community’s DNA.  He took responsibility for his own “bigotry,” something he learned about himself while serving in the Coast Guard.  At 14, he lied about his age to join the Coast Guard, and sometime after that found himself serving in a military capacity because the Coast Guard was conscripted during the war.  I don’t recall the details, but something serious happened and he credited another sailor, a man of color, as saving him, which changed his relationship with this man.  He found that he could no longer blindly believe the things he had been taught overtly or covertly.  He found that his heart was changed because it had to be.

I hadn’t thought about this story for a long time.  Earlier this week, while I was on retreat, Bishop Sutton of Maryland, who was our retreat leader, was talking about how good preaching changes the hearts of people, perhaps preacher included.  It is not something that is done through talking points or the relaying of facts, but rather by helping people to have an experience that speaks to their hearts.  It is not lost on me now, as I preach words to you, that I am saying also it is not the words themselves that result in change, but connecting the words to something truly meaningful.

Listening to Bishop Sutton and being reminded of that time with my grandfather, led me to look at today’s Gospel in a whole new way.  I have heard this Gospel more times in my life than I can possibly count.  We hear it (or the same story from one of the other Gospels) every year on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.  And, if I’m not mistaken, it shows up one other time in the year, at least in some years.  So, I’ve heard it a lot, preached it a few times, and I have always understood it to be about the revelation of Christ’s glory.  And that is what it is about.

Yet, when I read the story this week, a new line jumped out at me.  It was the last line, the one in which Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to remain silent about what they experienced.  Jesus didn’t tell them they could never talk about it, but he told them to keep it to themselves until after his resurrection. I think we can infer this to mean until others have had a chance to have their own experience of his glory, up close and personal.

Why would Jesus order them to be quiet?  I think it is because Jesus knew what my grandfather learned: that changes of heart, whether they be about people who are different from us or about development of faith, are not things that happen because people have been told about them. Sharing one’s experiences, one’s faith journey, is a good thing.  Words and talking are a big part of evangelism.  They are not the only part of evangelism, which I think is about inviting people to come have their own encounter with God, inviting people to develop their own faith, their own relationship with Jesus.  It is about how it is that we share our understanding of God’s glory, how we witness to Jesus in our own lives, how we share with others how the Holy Spirit has changed, and continues to change, our hearts.  And that takes a whole lot more than words.

We’re wrapping up our first full year together, and we’ve been talking a lot about how we go out into God’s world and invite others to experience what we have experienced in this amazing faithful and Spirit-filled community that is Grace Church.  Knowing what we know about how the Holy Spirit works in and through us, about how we encounter the glory of the Risen Christ in our lives and in our life together, how do we do more than just talk about it?  What do we need to do, one-by-each and together, to invite others to experience God at work in and through them?

I’m not standing here suggesting I have all the answers, because I don’t. What I do have is a heart full of hope and optimism because I know who you are and who we are together.  And I know that we are off to a really good start.  Just in this time we spend together in worship, we do more than talk about it. We take it beyond the words to something more meaningful, to something that is real in a way that only God’s grace and Christ’s glory make real.  Sure, we hear the words of Scripture and you hear the words I preach, but we do that with deep intention and in a loving and welcoming community, as preparation for what comes next.  And then we are all invited to God’s table to experience fellowship with Jesus in the sacrament of Communion.  And we know how heart-changing that can be.  We are then sent out into God’s world, hopefully to make it a better place.

So, I stand here inviting you to join me in prayer and reflection about how we go out into the world in ways that invite others to experience the grace and glory, whether we are blessed to welcome them here at Grace or they choose to be in some other place.  How do we do that in ways that remind us that words are only a part of it and that people, ourselves included, need to be able to hear with our hearts?