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May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some of you know that I am a historian and a huge proponent of lifelong learning. In fact, tomorrow I will begin a series of yearly summer classes at the University of the South because I just can’t say “no” to a good class or seminar. When I was in seminary the first go around at the Interdenominational Theological Center, one of my favorite classes was apparently everyone else’s least favorite – Church History. Dr. Mark Ellingson, our church history professor, played no games when it came to reading and coming to class prepared. He set up his class in a such a way that you had to come prepared to debate one side or another of any number of the church’s ecumenical councils and synods: First Council of Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon, Ephesus, Trent – these spaces the Church set up to wrestle with theological concepts regarding everything from Mary as Theotokos (or “God-bearer”) to how many bishops it takes to ordain a priest (which sounds a bit like how much bishops it takes to screw in a lightbulb).

I love Church History not only because I love the councils themselves, but I also love the process of debating, reasoning, and learning from one another. It is also true that Church councils were often replete with scandal and drama, not unlike a scintillating Netflix series, like the time Saint Nicholas (think Santa Claus) “allegedly” punched Arius in the face for suggesting that Christ was created by God and was not, in fact, himself God.

After the cessation of a series of persecutions and policies which forced the early church underground and out-of-sight, the early church became obsessed with what this whole “Trinity” business was all about. While it might be suggested that there were purely religious motives behind this question, I wonder if the question didn’t also have a practical dimension as well. The persecutions that the Early Church endured did not stem the flow of new converts; in fact, the result was quite the opposite. The heroic testimonies of brave women, men, and children going to their deaths singing the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms drew many others into the rapidly expanding fold of Christian faith. But the persecutions had also made many people afraid and ashamed to be Christian. Many Christians, seeking to save their own lives or the lives of their families, denounced Christ. When these persecutions came to an end – when it became legal and increasingly more popular to be a Christian – the Church had to wrestle with how they were called to relate to one another including those who had fallen away. I wonder if an underlying question around how God related to God’s self wasn’t also a question of how  Christians are called to relate to one another?

Our Gospel today is often held up as proof of Jesus’ affirmation of the existence of the Holy Trinity. Baptize “them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” the Evangelist has Jesus say. But I want to draw our attention to this idea of baptism, this induction into the abundant life of God as the main point of the Great Commission – the job description that Jesus gives his followers right before his ascension. The whole point of the Church is to continue the fundamental work of Christ – to gather the whole world into the blessed community of God. Among other things, the Holy Trinity is an icon of how that community is supposed to operate.

Around the same time that Christianity came out of the shadows, many women and men decided to leave the cities and journey into the Egyptian desert to live either in semi-isolation or in intentional communities. These desert monastics were experimenting with radical concepts of Christian community and vocation. One such man, a monk named Pachomius, established a religious order in Upper Egypt that had at its heart the New Testament idea of koinonia, or fellowship. Relationships were to be mutual, hierarchy was meant to be practical and as flat as possible, and in all things God was to be centered, to the end that human beings would rediscover the image of God the each of them possessed. Horsiesius, who led Pachomius’ movement for a short time, encouraged his fellow monks with these words:

Therefore, brothers, let us be equal, from the least to the greatest, whether rich or poor, perfect in harmony and humility… Let no one look after his own pleasure when he sees a brother living in poverty and hardship… Our Lord and Savior gave his apostles this precept, “I gave you a new commandment: Love one another, as I have loved you. By this you shall truly be known as my disciples” (John 13:34-35). We should, therefore, love one another and show that we are truly the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ and sons of Pachomius and disciples of the Koinonia.[1]

Early monasticism sought to reestablish the harmony that existed before sin corrupted and twisted human relationships.

Early church disputes over theology and orthodoxy can often be dismissed as irrelevant arguments over inane theological minutia; but, I believe the conversations were really about relationships – how God relates to God’s self, how we relate to God, how we relate to one another, how we relate to those who are not Christian, and how we related to those who have fallen away from the faith. I am not suggesting that we got it right. Rightness and wrongness are words that are often too small to capture the fullness of human contact and conversation. What I am suggesting is that there was, and still remains, a desire to understand more deeply how we are called to be with one another in the increasingly small and fragile world.

As an icon of perfected community, I believe that the Holy Trinity has much to teach us in this regard. Perfect, theocentric or “God-centered”, loving community is not defined by the space we take up, but in the space we give up. The three persons of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dance around one another, giving and filling space. It’s hard to describe and simply must just be experienced and savored. The heart of our God is one of hospitality – radically open space of welcome.

Remarking on the amazing depth of need for true hospitality in our contemporary world, Roman Catholic priest and writer Henri Nouwen writes this:

Like the Semitic nomads, we live in a desert with many lonely travelers who are looking for a moment of peace, for a fresh drink, and for a sign of encouragement so that they can continue their mysterious search for freedom.[2]

At its heart, Christian faith is about throwing open our doors to our weary world and inviting folks to drink from the fountain of eternal life.

Baptism, our waterborne new birth into the dynamic life of Christ, inducts us into that relationship. It’s more than celestial fire insurance; it’s is being conscripted into the saving community of Jesus, called to bear Christ out into the world through the currency of everyday relationships. Everything from how we say our prayers to how we disagree is meant to point beyond ourselves to a God who exists in such perfect harmony with God’s self that we are still struggling to put that relationship into words.

In trying to understand the intricacies of the interrelation between the persons of the Holy Trinity, it might be that the early Church made the perfect the enemy of the good, violently persecuting those who disagreed or deviated from the standard of orthodoxy. It might be that in their zeal to get it right, they missed the whole point of relationship to God: relationship, unity, love, koinonia, fellowship.

Last week I said that I do not believe that Jesus came into the world to give us one more thing to argue about, that we have more than enough. I deeply believe that. It’s not that our differences are inconsequential, but I believe we can learn far more from one another when we engage in mutually-affirming and compassionate conversations than when we throw people away as trash.

Before he was the leader of a monastic order, Pachomius was a conscript in the Roman army. During a stint in prison, Pachomius and a few of his friends were visited by some strangers who brought them food and drink. When Pachomius asked why these people showed kindness to those whom they did now know, one of his friends replied, “They are Christians, and Christians are merciful to everyone including strangers.”[3]

The best work we can do as a church actually costs us nothing but mindfulness and intentionality – it is simple kindness and mercy. It isn’t proving our rightness or someone else’s wrongness. It is about creating space for people to enter and to experience what the Church holds to be true – that despite the scarcity and anxiety around us, the abundant fountain of God’s grace still flows down like waters, and God’s love like an ever-flowing stream.

[1] Horsiesius, “The Testament of Horsiesius” in Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism, William Harmless (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 158-159.

[2] Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (New York: Random House, 1972), 95.

[3] Harmless, Desert Christians, 118.

I grew up in a Baptist church that became increasingly more and more Pentecostal and Charismatic as I grew older. If you know anything about these movements then you know that isolated instances of charismatic worship have popped up in Christianity since the beginning, but took on new energy and fervor in the early 1900s when William Seymour, a black preacher from Louisiana, traveled to Los Angeles where his preaching launched a three-year revival. You heard me right. Not three days, but three years. The so-called Azusa Street Revival centered the movement of the Holy Spirit who Pentecostals believe would empower people to preach, testify, faint, and sing and speak in tongues. People would come from all over to attend these revivals and then carry this religious movement back to their home congregations, where many were ostracized for their new religious beliefs.

I remember growing up feeling as though my church was somehow more special than others because we believed the way we did. Although it wore the guise of humility, there was a spiritual pride in belonging to a church that had somehow gotten it right when it came to what Pentecost was all about – inexplicable and ecstatic spiritual experience.

The, perhaps intentional, fruit of this type of belief was an increasing isolation from the things of the world. I didn’t quite grow up in a house where dancing, music, and movies were forbidden, but I certainly remember feeling as though I was living under a microscope of sorts, like God was watching my every move and taking careful, copious notes. We believed that we were called to be radically different, set apart even, from the world around us. Rather than drawing the world together, it appeared to me that the work of the Holy Spirit was actually doing a lot more work to divide us.

As I have grown older and as I witness the increasing polarization, terrorism, and alienation in our world, I become more and more sure of one thing: division is not of God. Peace is. Christ did not come to give us one more thing to argue about. God knows we have more than enough. He came not only that we might have an example of living a radically compassionate life, but also so that he could destroy once-and-for-all what St. Paul calls “the dividing wall of hostility between us”[1] and invite us into the unity and love of God and the compassionate community that flows from that.

Let me give you an example: a few weeks ago I was teaching a weekend course on systemic oppression at Bishop Kemper School for Ministry in Topeka, Kansas where I serve as a member of the faculty. When I shared with the class that biological race does not actually exist, that I share as much in common biologically with Donald Trump as I do with Barack Obama, they were astounded. But it’s true. Race was made up for all sorts reasons, but especially to give us permission to hate one another. There are no huge, biological differences between human; it is literally all just skin deep; but, for centuries we have piled more and more meaning onto, something that ultimately does not exist. The result it what we see around us: deep skepticism and suspicion, calloused hearts and close hands, debilitating pain, and seemingly intractable suffering.

But into that conversation, which is fraught with many dangers, I hear the call of Christ to remember our vocation as peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says, “for they shall be called children of God.”[2] Our call is to remember that the ultimate work of dismantling division and estrangement has already been accomplished by Christ on the cross. Our work is to follow in his holy wake; to carry the message of peace, and compassion, and love into the world; to point to the reality that the things that divide us, the things that cause us to fight, the things that break relationships, are not more powerful than the love and the power of God to draw us all together.

That’s what I hear in the Pentecost story: I hear of a God who destroyed the illusion of debilitating difference and invited the whole world – regardless of language, place of origin, and ethnicity –  to share the story of God’s divine love. Here’s the truth: the story of God belongs to none of us because it belongs to all of us. What makes us different ought to not make us enemies. In fact, our differences ought to make us curious friends, searching both for common ground and for growing edges where we might learn.

Walter Brueggemann has a poem that I believe captures this quite eloquently:

O for a thousand tongues to sing
our great redeemer’s name:
To sing beyond ourselves, extravagantly,
with abandonment
beyond all our possibilities
and all our fears,
and all our hopes…
to our redeemer dear, the antidote to our death,
the salve to our wounds,
the resolve of our destructiveness…
A thousand, a million, a trillion tongues,
more than our own,
more than our tradition,
more than our theology,
more than our understanding,
tongues around us,
tongues among us,
tongues from our silenced parts.
Tongues from us to you in freedom and in courage,
finally ceding our lives and our loves to your good care.[3]

I get questions all the time about how I feel about speaking in tongues as an Episcopalian who grew up as a Pentecostal. My answer is this: when it comes to speaking in tongues I am favor of speaking in the kinds of tongues that bring peace, and courage, and understanding, and redemption, and love. Tongues that transcend and transfigure our understanding of human differences and call us deeper into truthful and honest relationship into one another. Those are the tongues I believe God is concerned about, and those are the tongues the Church is called to speak in.

 

[1] Ephesians 2:14

[2] Matthew 5:9

[3] Walter Brueggemann, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, 9.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

A few years ago I was in a very, let’s just say, “interesting” time in my life.

I had just finished my year of Anglican studies at the University of the South and was anxiously awaiting my first call as a priest. I was ordained a deacon five months prior in the Diocese of Atlanta and at that time the Diocese of Atlanta had a policy that one was not ordained a priest without an actual call to serve as a priest, or at least that’s how I remember it. And four years ago, of the other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon, I was the only one who had yet to receive a call.

To be clear: it was not for lack of effort. I had discerned with churches all over northern Georgia – urban, rural, small, large, conservative, liberal – but none of these searches resulted in a call. After months of interviewing and hearing “no” after “no” after “no,” I began to doubt whether I was actually called to the priesthood in the first place. It wasn’t just “no,” it was a “no” that felt unfair, or a “no” that felt discriminatory, or a “no” that felt heartless. They were “no’s” that resurrected the ghost of a sort-of-pudgy, very unpopular, deeply insecure little boy – a ghost I thought I had exorcised a long time ago. If you’ve ever been in a space in your own life that was defined by an endless chorus of “no’s” then you know what I am talking about – the deep, soul-shaking, debilitating sense of self-doubt that begins to seep through the fraying seems of our world.

One of that hardest things I have ever had to do was to return to Atlanta on June 15, 2013 for the ordination to the priesthood of other three people with whom I was ordained a deacon. I sat in the cavernous nave of St. Philip’s Cathedral spiritually cold, trying my best to go through the liturgical motions, trying to keep a smile on my face, but in actuality I was hurting. People asked me what I had done wrong or where I had messed up so much that I began to feel like something was wrong with me, like God had lied to me or that I had misheard how God was calling me.

Even four years later, after spending close to three-and-a-half of those years as a priest in Kansas City, I would be lying to you if I said that I was completely over that experience. There are some situations that leave scars too deep to ever fully heal. But what I did learn was a valuable lesson in what happens in the meantime – those awkward middle spaces that each of us attempts to stumble through.

This past Thursday the Church marked the Feast of the Ascension – the moment when Jesus ascends bodily into heaven – scars and all – while his disciples stand below wondering what the heck is supposed to happen next. Before he goes, Jesus promises to send them another “comforter” to walk with them. The Ascension was the moment in which Jesus created the necessary vacuum of mission for the Church to step into. It was an act of radical hospitality, the practice of withdrawing to create enough room for the other to emerge more fully.

There is a mystical Jewish doctrine which suggests that in the beginning when God wanted to create, God’s glory filled everything and as such creation was impossible. In order to create, God first had to withdraw in order to leave an empty space large enough to create something that was “not God.” Whether or not this is true, I do not know. But I do like the idea of hospitality not necessarily being what we give and what we do, but the intentional space we make for others. In withdrawing from his early followers 40 days after the Resurrection, Jesus was creating space for the disciples to step up and grow, and space to nurture the early church.

That’s the Ascension – Jesus handing the reigns of his fledgling movement into the hands of fragile human beings who he knew would royally screw it up. They would exclude people. They would persecute people. They would get drunk with the wine of worldly power. They would deny people the boundless fountain of God’s abundant grace. But they would also proclaim the good news. The would heal the sick. They would topple emperors and kingdoms. They would bear witness to the inbreaking of the holy Reign of God. They would give themselves away to something far greater than themselves. The Church is complex and messy because we are complex and messy and yet God still dares to believe in us.

 

Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is his earnest petition to God to watch over us in the meantime, in those in-between spaces. 20th century mystic, theologian, and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Howard Thurman says that God places a crown over our “heads that for the rest of our lives we are trying to grow tall enough to wear.” You and I are here, trying our hardest to step into the fullness of who God knows us to already be.

Our work in the meantime is to discover that for ourselves. Our work is to step into the space created when things don’t go as planned, when things go wrong, when people leave who were supposed to stay, when the world seems to be careening off the tracks or fraying at the edges and to discover over and over again that who we are is not contingent upon a position, a rank, or job, a marriage, a material possession, an achievement, it’s not even about who we once were. At the deepest, most fundamental level of our humanity, we are precious creations of God who loves us so much that it is quite literally ridiculous. When the rations of the world’s congratulations and affirmations are depleted, our work is to rediscover the well of God’s grace that will never run dry.

As much as we might want it to be, life is not an endless series of joys. Life is, well, life. We want so badly what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “full solar spirituality” because so many of us are afraid of what we discover in the darkness, in the silence, in the stillness, in the space in the meantime.

As some of you may know, I am a huge social media person. Part of it is who I am as a millennial. I wasn’t quite born with a device in my hand, but at this point, I have spent more years of my life with a cellphone than without. If you know anything about Twitter, it is kind of like walking into a loud room where literally millions of people are talking, exchanging ideas, shouting at one another, arguing over politics, sharing the latest hobbies, or just wasting time. In fact, when people are brand new to Twitter, they often describe it as “overwhelming,” like jumping off the diving board into a cyclone swirling in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This constant chatter is a part of the human experience now.

But this chatter isn’t unique to millennials. It wasn’t even invented by millennials. It is everywhere. It’s the music when we shop. It’s the radio in the car. It’s the television as background noise at home. It is persistent noise and constant static.

Now, I am not saying that music and social media are evil. I don’t believe there to be some nefarious plot to destroy the human race by cell phones and earbuds. By no means. But in the context of a society that is growing increasingly anxious while battling secret addictions to drugs, food, and rampant consumerism, the presence of constant noise raises interesting questions that we might need to wrestle with.

I wonder what we might be hiding from.

I wonder what it is in ourselves or in our society that we are so afraid to confront that we numb it with static.

I wonder what it is that we are afraid to discover in the empty spaces.

Our wiring, whenever we encounter one of those awkward in the meantime spaces is to run from it, to chase it away, to fill it, to exorcise it by any means necessary, but I wonder what it might be trying to tell us.

Those between spaces where we find ourselves a lot of the time are not punishment, they are just a part of life. They are spaces where the blessed dew of God’s grace has a tendency of collection. They are spaces where Jesus has a tendency of showing up in weird and unexpected ways. They might not even be trying to teach us anything aside from how complex life can be and about how we might discover new tools to find our way through.

What Barbara said last week is true – God will not leave us comfortless. It isn’t that the early followers of Jesus were just “up the creek without a paddle” after Jesus ascended. If you follow the story, the community went and prayed. They supported one another.

And sometimes just having friends in the meantime, a community to call home – a place of safety, security, and belonging – is more than enough.

Thanks be to God for “enough.”

Amen.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Good Shepherd window in the apse of Saint Paul’s Church to the left of the organ.

The other day as I was driving into the church down Lake of the Isles Parkway , I heard the voice of God.

Seriously.

It wasn’t an out-of-body experience or anything like that. It was just a warm day. The sun was out and the sky was clear. I was just driving along, minding my business, when all the sudden I heard the soulful voice of God coming through the audio system in my car singing:

Let’s, let’s stay together
Lovin’ you whether, whether
Times are good or bad, happy or sad

Okay, maybe God doesn’t sound like Al Green to you, but in that moment, for whatever reason that sounded like the heart of the Gospel to me – God inviting me to into a lifelong relationship of love that transcends whatever life happens to throw at me in the moment. What I appreciate about this excerpt from the soulful Gospel According to Al Green its bold realism – in this life there will be moments that are “good or bad, happy or sad,” and yet true love exists above and within those realities. Love is not negated by life; rather, love is most clearly reflected within it.

Our faith teaches us that love is not an abstract concept – some romantic sentimentality that exists only in movies – but a flesh and blood reality. “For God so loved the world…” that Love took on flesh and blood to live among us, to walk in our shoes, to visit our brokenness, to heal our cruelty and indifference with compassion and kindness, to deliver us from blindness by bringing us face-to-face with one another across the divide of animosity and estrangement. Love of about connection. Love is about contact. The love of God is best expressed and felt in blessed crush of community.

In our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, we see that caring and compassionate community is the direct result of the Pentecost event. Earlier in the second chapter, we hear about the Holy Spirit who “descended” upon those in the Upper Room with wind and fire. This miraculous sign of the breaking open of the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought a diverse group of people together into a new community centered in Christ’s love. You see, true love is an highly contagious airborne pathogen. One of the symptoms of being “caught up in the rapture” of God’s love is that we come into compassionate contact with other people. Much like Jesus giving his blessed mother and beloved disciple into one another’s care at the foot of the cross, the Holy Spirit calls us into mutually-compassionate spaces of deeply caring community. To be the Church is to be concerned about others, particularly the most vulnerable and marginalized among us, there is no way around that.

I will always remember a conversation that I had with my mentor and former rector-turned-bishop before going off to seminary where he looked at me and said that part of my lifelong journey with God would necessarily entail learning to let people love me. I will tell you this, being loved sounds easy, but it is a difficult act of humility and grace.

One of the reasons it is hard for me is because I am a both a fixer and someone who has given themselves into a self-sacrificing life of a caring professional. It is often incredibly difficult for those whose lives are centered around caring for others to receive love in return. It might be “more blessed to give than to receive,” but it is often harder to truly receive than it is to give.

Last week I had the honor of visiting with Father Karl Edwin Bell before he died. When I walked into his room, he grabbed my hand firmly and gave me a priceless gift – the gift of love and care. As he was laying in his bed in great weakness and pain, he, a man who had been a priest longer than I have been alive, said to me between incredibly labored breaths, “thank you for coming, I know that this is often harder for the priest than the person they are visiting.” Imagine that, in that moment, when I was incredibly nervous and anxious, Fr. Bell saw deeply into me and cared for me. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The man spent decades caring for other people, and he continued until the very end. Christian community is best expressed in how we care for one another.

Care is at the heart of Jesus’ image of the Good Shepherd. “The Good Shepherd” he says, “is the one who calls us into abundant life” and the work of the sheep is to listen for voices that call us to life and to resist those who call us to death.

Can I be honest?: there are a lot of voices out there lately. Some are loud. Some are boisterous. Some are appealing, others are repugnant. The noise comes from all over and it is hard to listen for anything life-giving when it appears to be nothing but endless, distracting, unsettling static.

I think that’s why the voice of Al Green sounded like the voice of God to me in that moment, because what I long to hear more clearly is a voice that invites me more deeply into the reality of love – love of self, love of neighbor, and love of God. Speaking to many of you, I think that sentiment it felt deeply by you as well. In the face of so many words of hatred, callousness, indifference, and division we need reminders of love and beauty.

The struggle is learning to distinguish voices of love from others. How do we do this? Here is a bit of wisdom I have discovered. Voices of true love invite us plumb the depths of our own hearts in order to invite us to become the best, most loving, most compassionate, most caring versions of ourselves. Voices of love do not confirm our biases, our stereotypes, our fears; rather, love call us to transcend them. They call us beyond ourselves, our desires, our wishes, and our needs to see deeply the needs of others – even those most different from us.

Let me give you an example. Laurence Freeman, a brother of the Order of Saint Benedict, tells the story of two monks who lived together without a quarrel. “One said to the other, ‘Let’s have a quarrel with each other, as other men do.’ The other answered, ‘I don’t know how a quarrel happens.’ The first said, ‘Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, “That’s mine.” Then you say, “No, it’s mine.” That is how you begin a quarrel.’ So they put a brick between them and one of them said, ‘That’s mine.” The other said, ‘No, it’s mine.’ He answered, ‘Yes, it’s yours. Take it away.’ They were unable to argue with each other.”[1]

It strikes me that one of the things we seldom see Jesus doing is arguing. In fact, I am hard pressed to think of one example of him arguing with anyone. Sure, there were times in which Jesus had conversations with people. He responds. He engages. But he never argues, not that I am aware of. What he did was listen deeply, not just with his ears, but with his heart. When people would come to him with questions, often with less-than-pure motives, he would listen deeply to what they were asking and then respond in such a way that they were often left dumbfounded.

How might our world be different if we listened more deeply to one another, particularly those who have long been ignored or silenced? The deep change we seek in ourselves and our world can only be brought about by deep listening that supports deep relationships that make room for deep conversion.

We learn such gifts of hospitality and deep listening in what Sister Joan Chittister, Benedictine nun, calls the “sanctifying tedium and blessed boredom and glorious agitation”[2] of community. She goes on to say, “if you want to be holy, stay where you are in the human community and learn from it. Learn patience. Learn wisdom. Learn unselfishness. Learn love.”[3]

It might be that God calls us into Christian community, not because we are so good or perfect, but precisely the opposite, because we are so bad at this thing called love that we have to enroll in a crash course in it on a regular basis, to relearn what love looks and sounds like. It might be that we aren’t saved out of the world, but that we are saved in community. To remember how to care for our neighbor and how to allow ourselves to be cared for. To remind ourselves to listen more than we speak. Think of Church like a continuing education course in love.

And with that, to remember that no matter how many times we fall down, a mess up, and wound one another, and deprive ourselves, no matter how many times we attempt and fail the final exam, the grace of God is sufficient to cover our weaknesses, that, in the words of that great sharer of the Gospel, God promises to be with us “whether times are good or bad, happy or sad” and with that we might learn to be more gracious towards one another.

The Good Shepherd calls us to life. It’s a choice we must make over and over again, each and every day, with each and every encounter with someone else.

Thanks be to God.

Alleluia. Amen.

 

[1] Laurence Freemen, in Where God Happens: Discovering Christ in One Another, by Rowan Williams, 130-131

[2] Joan Chittsiter, 27.

[3] Joan Chittister. 28.

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

Distinguished Lutheran preacher Edmund Steimle says this about faith:

“You can never get a person to believe by talking to [them] about faith. If you want a child to make friends with the child down the street, you can talk to [them] about friendship till you’re blue in the face and it gets you nowhere. What you can do is arrange a meeting where friendship might occur. Or it might not. It is no longer in your hands.[1]

This is an important perspective to consider as we take up the story of so-called “doubting” Thomas. Poor Thomas gets a bad rap. People of faith who are probably a little too sure of themselves tend to project all their doubt and skepticism onto poor Thomas because of his refusal to believe what his brother disciples were reporting to him.

However, if we are honest, we might tell our own truth, that many of us are hanging by the threads of faith. We know what we are supposed to believe, and yet we often find ourselves coming up short.

Much of this comes from the massive misunderstanding of what belief means in the first place. For many of us, faith is cognitive exercise where we collect facts about God and choose to believe they actually happened or they did not. Like I said last week about Easter, faith for many is a problem to be solved, like a cosmic Rubik’s Cube. We twist it, and turn it, and try to figure it out. And then we heap shame upon ourselves and others when we fail to attain to appropriate levels of belief.

Except that belief is not cognitive, it is emotional. The Rev’d Fleming Rutledge, distinguished Episcopal priest, says this about belief:

“…faith… is not assent to any theological proposition. It is not agreement with any religious principle. It is not acquiescence to any spiritual program. It is a radical trust in the person of Jesus, the One ‘who calls into existence the things that do not exist’ (Rom. 4:17), the One who creates faith where there is no faith.”

What she is saying is that faith is the result of having met Jesus face-to-face, the byproduct of having met the Sun of Righteousness and being completely unable to turn away from him. Faith, dear friends, is a response to God’s goodness. God’s goodness is not a response to our faith.

This might help us better understand this Gospel episode featuring Thomas. When we first run into Thomas it was after Jesus had visited the other ten disciples immediately after the Resurrection. The Evangelist suggests that they were locked in the room “for fear” of the religious authorities. The only one who was not locked away in fear was Thomas. We aren’t told where he was or what he was doing, but the subtext is that he was not locked away “for fear” of the religious authorities. When the other ten disciples come to him and tell him what they had seen, Thomas had the normal, human response: “unless I see it, unless I experience the resurrection for myself, I will not believe.”

The ten disciples made a common mistake we often make as people of faith. We assume that there is something so compelling about our stories that those who do not yet believe will come to faith simply by hearing them. This is spiritual pride, because it assumes that those to whom we are sharing have no sacred stories of their own. What people are looking for is not stories by themselves, but stories that set us up to encounter God in our midst.

Think about it – if a person is suffering depression, you can tell them all the stories of a God who promises “joy in the morning,”[2] or you can incarnate that God and sit with people who are struggling to cope with the pressures of life and debilitating mental illness. If a person is hungry, you can tell them stories of a God who “satisfies the needs of every living creature,”[3] or you can feed them. If a person is feeling unloved and unwanted, you can tell them about the love of God until the second coming, or you can listen deeply to their stories and validate their feelings. We can talk about a God of boundless compassion, or we can show up to our friends who are assaulted because of who they are and what they believe bearing in our presence the compassionate heart of God. We are the mystical body of Christ, called into his service, to bear his love to the world. Through us, Christ is reborn anew, each day, in the dark and dingy places of our world.

What Thomas shows us is the heart of Gospel ministry – incarnation. The antidote to his skepticism was not story, but invitation and presence, forgiveness and grace. That’s why Jesus responds to Thomas the way he does. He doesn’t scold him for not believing, he invites him in, he engages him in order to help him find his way through doubt towards belief. What has become clearer for me in my relatively short life is this: belief is not a destination, it a journey wherein we commit daily to meeting Jesus and being invited deeper into the mystery of God’s love for us and the world around us. This journey involves questions, and skepticism, and doubt coupled with commitment and trust. We don’t believe because we see. After all, we are a people who “walk by faith and not by sight.”[4] Rather, we come to see because we believe, because we have chosen to throw our trust into the unknown believing that someone, somewhere will catch it. Dr. Martin Luther King, says that “faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

This way of viewing belief and faith call for more from those of us who claim a share in the saving community of Jesus. It involves a willingness to show up and be present. It calls for vulnerability and openness. It asks for humility and mindfulness. It requires risk. In short, it calls for discipleship – the daily practice of being formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ who is himself the perfect image of God the Father.

But here’s some good news: as much as this asks of us, we are invited into ministry with a savior who believes in (trusts) us before we ever think to believe in (trust) him. He comes into our locked places, our dark places, our fearful places, our frightened places, the places we’d rather hide from the loving gaze of God and offers us heaven’s peace. It was the belief that Jesus placed into his disciples that transformed them from fearful followers to brave apostles. Each of us is continually transformed by a God who believes in us and loves us deeply.

This passage from John is less about “doubting” Thomas and more about a “believing” Jesus who enters our lives and who desires to draw all hearts into blessed communion with the God of the Universe.

It is about experience being the antidote to doubt, and our sacred task of putting flesh and bones to our sacred stories and living them out in the world.

It is about a call to trust in God – a God who creates with song, redeems with love, saves with faith, and restores with abundance.

And with an amazing resume like that, who wouldn’t want to meet him?

It’s just up to us, you and I, to set up the blind date.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

 

[1] Edmund Steimle, “Introduction” in Help My Unbelief, Fleming Rutledge, 4

[2] Psalm 30:5

[3] Psalm 145:16

[4] 2 Corinthians 5:7

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Last week when we marked the Sunday of the Passion here at St. Paul’s, I remarked that “Holy Week is messy” and that there is no way to make it all make sense.

I believe the same is true for Easter.

There are some who will talk about Easter as if it were a mathematic equation, arguing theological minutia using insider church speak. For some people, that’s what Easter is – a problem to be solved.

But for me Easter is an altogether different experience. It isn’t prose to be explained. It is poetry to be experienced in light and sound, fire and water, bread and wine. It is Aretha’s “Sweet morning dew,” Stevie Wonder’s “overjoyed,” Coldplay’s “Yellow,” Chance the Rappers “…promised lands / soil as soft as mama’s hands / running water, standing still / endless fields of daffodils and chamomile.” To me, Easter is a poetic invitation to journey into joy.

When you think about joy, what comes to your mind? Happiness? Pleasure? Bliss?

Joy is hard to describe, am I right? Joy is retrospective rather than prescriptive. It’s one of those things that we are certain about after we experience it, but it is often hard to name exactly what it was about a particular experience that was “joyous.”

A few weeks ago, I told you about the first time I visited an Episcopal church and was invited to share in Holy Communion. I am absolutely clear that I experienced joy in that moment, but I am not 100% clear as to what it was that was specifically joy-filled. There was the welcome and gracious hospitality of a complete stranger, there was the simple beauty of the worship, and there was a specific invitation from the priest for my tired and weary soul to “come away and rest awhile,” but the joy I experienced was more than the sum of these parts. It was joy that transcended my experience and yet brought my experience into clearer focus.

If Easter is a poetic invitation to journey into joy, and joy, among other things, transcends our current experiences by helping to see more clearly, then I wonder what it is that God is trying to get us to see through the lens of the Resurrection?

For wisdom in this, we might ask Mary Magdalene. She was a close disciple of Jesus (even though she never gets the credit she deserves). She approaches the tomb early Sunday morning and expects to find it sealed. I think Mary, still overcome with grief, was going to the tomb to mourn. She was expecting grief.

But as she approached the tomb, she saw something that she didn’t expect. The stone she expected to be rolled across the door to the tomb was rolled away. Her mind instantly goes to the worst-case scenario; she suspects that some enemies of Jesus’ movement of compassion and justice have decided to compound the anguish of his followers by removing the body.

When she returns to the tomb after alerting the other disciples, she returns having consigned herself to her grief. When she bends down to look into the tomb, it appears as though her worst fear is confirmed because she sees the body missing and she sees two strangers – two angels. Her mind is still so clouded in grief that even when she sees the Risen Lord face-to-face, she accuses him of being a part of this nefarious plot. It isn’t until he names her that she sees, rather hears, the invitation. This is not a morning for grief, but one for joy. It is as if Jesus is saying “beloved, it is not your deepest fear that has been confirmed, but your wildest dream.”

We might be tempted to give Mary Magdalene a hard time for her inability to see what was happening. But the truth be told: Mary is all of us. An inability to see goodness and grace in the world is a part of what it means to live in exile from our true home with God. Pain, or grief, or anguish, or anxiety, or fear, or fatigue, or callousness can prevent us from seeing the hand of God at work in the world around us. In those moments, our wiring can cause us to miss God’s invitation to journey into joy.

And that’s why Easter matters: because the joy of God that entered the world in the smallness of a manger could not be destroyed on harshness of the cross. God’s joy, God’s dream, God’s Word destroyed evil, and hatred, and sin by entering it, passing through the threshold of death, and in rising from the dead, God blows the roof off our wildest dreams. It is through Jesus Christ that the most impossible realities become possible. He lives that through him all living might be redeemed and because that is true, joy – joy, unspeakable joy – is always possible. Situated among the complexity of our lives, Easter may not feel all that important, but in case you don’t know: joy lives in close proximity to possibility.

English poet and painter William Blake says this about joy:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.
 – William Blake, “Eternity” in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, Peter Gomes, 244.

Perhaps what God is trying to get us to see more clearly in Easter is the context of our lives. Sure, our lives may be messy and out of sorts, but that makes them all the more suitable to be containers of God’s joy. Peter Gomes says it this way, “joy… is not an invitation to mere merrymaking and mindless happiness, a distraction from earth’s gloomy night. Not at all. It means that because the Lord has come to fulfill the promises of God, all that was separated and disparate is now united and whole. Suffering is the context for joy, even as darkness is the context for light and silence for hearing.” – Peter Gomes. The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, 243-244.

Easter is about a shift in perspective, the resurrection of an awareness that just as a little light can dispel a lot of darkness and a little sound disrupt a lot of silence, so too can a little joy transform a lot of suffering if we just lift our eyes.

Archbishop Rowan Williams says this, “[t]he resurrection is a moment in which human beings are reintroduced to one another across the gulf of mutual resentment and blame; a new human community becomes possible.” Rowan Williams, The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with the Icons of Christ, 31

The Son of God comes to destroy the wall that evil and estrangement had built between us and he pioneers the way into the joy that only exists in the presence of God. It is a joy rooted in community and sweet communion, in bread and wine, in fire and light, in water and spirit. It is joy rooted in the simple things transformed by the power of God to be for us signs of God abiding presence in our lives.

“Glimpses of holiness… remind us that we are neither our own nor on our own.” – Gomes, The Good Book, 254.

Beloved in Christ, you are never alone. You are part of the saving community of Christ, called into this movement of justice and compassion, to leaven the loaf of the world’s suffering with the yeast of God’s joy.

And if you know anything about bread, a little yeast goes a mighty long way.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

There is really no authentic way of making sense of it all. The cognitive dissonance of Holy Week – the joy and the drama, the celebration and the humiliation, the glory and the darkness – it all makes for a week that should be anything but holy if we think holy means pure.

Holy Week is messy.

This week, which marks Jesus’ final human steps, is holy only inasmuch as it is rooted in the presence Christ – God incarnate – who comes into the middle of all of this dissonance and sets up a home here because holiness is not about purity. Holiness is about where God chooses to make God’s home.

God comes to set up a home here because this is where we are. We live in the middle of all of the mess, trying desperately to run to one side over the other, but always seeming to find ourselves somewhere in the middle. Wrestling, running, tired, weary, and worn-down. Holy Week reminds us that God is here in it all.

Holy Week is holy because through it we are given another glimpse into the Son of God

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8 (NRSV))

The Son of God enters enters the human experience and reflects back to us the best and worst of who we are – generous and selfish, loving and filled with hate, compassionate and cold, gracious and begrudging – in order that through his living,

all darkness would be penetrated by his light,
all troubles calmed by his peace,
all evil redeemed by his love,
all pain transformed in his suffering,
and all dying glorified in his risen life.(

Adapted from “Night Prayer” (in A New Zealand Prayer Book, 183.)

Henri Nouwen says that “for a compassionate person nothing human is alien: no joy and no sorrow, no way of living and no way of dying.” (Henri Nouwen. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, 2nd ed. (Image Doubleday: New York, 2010), 45.)

As we enter the awesome and terrible mystery of Holy Week, I want to close with this poem from Walter Brueggemann that he wrote on the occasion of the bombing of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The poem is called “The poem conflict us:”

The intrusion of pain,
the eruption of anger,
the embrace of rage,
and then bewilderment and wonderment and awe.
Our lives in faith are situated among the poets:
The poets talk about,
swords to plowshares,
spears to pruning hooks,
and unlearning war.
But answered by a shadow poet who bids us,
plowshares to swords,
pruning hooks to spears,
be not a weakling!
The poems conflict us, as we are conflicted
sensing and knowing better,
Knowing better, but yielding.
Do not deliver us from the clashing poems
that are your word to us.
But give us courage and freedom and faith… O Prince of Peace.
Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, “The poem conflicts us” in Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2003), 77.)

Text: Ezekiel 27:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45
Type: Fishing (Evangelism), Discipleship
Sunday, April 2, 2017 (Lent V – Year A)
Father Marcus G. Halley, presider


May the words of my mouth,
and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.

Good morning.

Last week’s sermon was all about the new perspective we gain in Christ, a type of deep-seeing that propels us into life’s dark spaces with the blessed assurance of God’s divine presence. What I said last week is this, “wherever there is life, there is light.”

Today I want to explore life, particularly as it is expressed in God’s dream for creation. Wherever there is life, there is light, and God is at God’s heart a God of life.

The prophet Ezekiel’s experience in the Valley of Dry Bones is an example of God looking at something that was once great, and strong, and formidable and endeavoring to breathe new life into it. The question upon which this whole scene hinges is his question to Ezekiel, “mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel 37:3

Paul wrestles with this idea in his letter to the Romans where he tries to put this argument of life and death into conversation with Platonic philosophy. His essential argument is this: if we look with our senses, everything around is (the flesh) is destined to decay and death; but, if we see everything through a higher perspective (the spirit) we can see everything is moving towards perfection. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” he says, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” Romans 8:6

We have a similar scene in the Gospel where Jesus goes to resuscitate his friend Lazarus and he is confronted by both the faith and doubt of the community around him. He knows that Lazarus’s death is temporary, that he has only “fallen asleep,” and yet when face-to-face with the messy complexity of human grief he is overcome with emotion. In one of the most tender scenes in all of scripture, Jesus weeps. He weeps, and his tears become a human expression of the divine intention to enter our pain and confusion and to love us to life again and again because God is at God’s heart a God of life.

In a collection of poems entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson creatively reimagines the story of creation in his poem entitled “The Creation.” Throughout this poem, he imagines God stepping out on space and making the world because he was lonely, or creating light by smiling, or creating the sun and stars by gathering light in God’s hands and rolling it around and throwing it against the sky, or creating mountains and valleys by walking on the soft surface of the earth, or batting his eyelashes to create lighting, or clapping his hands to create thunder. Even after all this marvelous action, God was still lonely, so “he sat down” “by a deep, wide river” with his head in his hands and thought and thought, “Til he thought: I’ll make me a man!”

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.

James Weldon Johnson, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, 19-20

I love the rich, vivid, tactile language that transforms normal, playful activity into divine creation. I also appreciate the tenderness with which Johnson describes God creating humanity “like a mammy bending over a baby.” Most of all, I love the idea that God created humanity because God was lonely. God wasn’t satisfied with creating the world as a museum or prize rose garden that showcased God’s creative prowess. God wanted relationship. God is a God of motion, and moltenness, and movement. God is a God of life and all the mess that this brings.

Sometimes that mess doesn’t feel good, particularly when it is our lives that feel messy. Our journey with God can often feel that way – haphazard, unsure, unstable, and messy. When I was in seminary almost eight years ago, that is exactly how my life felt. Everyone else around me seemed sure of the paths laid out for them. They had firmly decided to pursue ordination, or academia, or community activism. I wasn’t even sure what classes I would take next semester and I certainly wasn’t sure I believed in Church anymore. I had grown up in an increasingly narrow brand of Christianity that sought to preserve its own power by placing more and more people on the trash pile destined for Hell. I began distancing myself from that community years ago, but that sent me on a journey into the wilderness that felt strange and uncertain. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was searching for home, and hospitality, and community that would welcome as I am.

I would find that community at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC one summer morning. I walked into the morning service completely unsure as to what I would find, yet driven by some unseen force. I met a woman named Martha who would guide me through all the correct Episcopal aerobics: bowing, genuflecting, kneeling, and standing. The learning curve for this recovering Baptist was steep, y’all. But, my life changed forever when we got to the Eucharist. I was overcome with emotion when I knelt at the altar. I received the bread in my palms with tears in my eyes. My tears were my human response to God’s divine intention to enter my confusion and pain and to love me to life again and again.

My life up to that point felt random, like I was wondering aimlessly in the desert and had just-so-happen to stumble upon an abundant pool of grace. But even tough the mess around us is can often seem like the desolate chaos of destruction, it might just be formless void of new creation waiting for the spirit of God to hover over it, animating it to new life.

What I learned in that moment is this: every faithful, struggling, stumbling step I have ever taken in God brings me exactly where I need to be. In her recent book Searching for Sunday, fellow evangelical expatriate Rachel Held Evans compares her life to a labyrinth. “The difference between a labyrinth and a maze,” she says, “is that a labyrinth has no dead ends.”(Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday, 198.) Labyrinths were first developed by the medieval church to simulate a journey to the Holy Land for faithful pilgrims too poor or ill to travel there. There is only one way in and out, but much like our lives, there is not straight line towards our destination. Rather, there are turns and switchbacks and sometimes it feels like we are walking away from center. But if we keep following the path, taking one prayerful step at a time, we will finally reach home. Rachel says this,

It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey, and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God. This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-what’s-next-deal, and you never actually arrive. I don’t know if the path is drawn out ahead of time, or if it corkscrews with each stop like in Alice’s Wonderland, or if, as some like to say, we make the road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze. No step taken in faith is wasted, not be a God who makes all things new. Ibid., 199

Each of our journeys is our own. We come together weekly to support one another in a Christian discipleship, but ultimately each of us make take up our cross and follow Christ.

The good news this morning is two-fold: first of all, the word “follow” presumes that someone has gone or is going ahead of us. As the writer of Psalm 139 says, there is no place we can go where God is not.

Second, our journey might take us through dark and dry valleys, but our true home is with God – in peace, and joy, and love, and enough. Jesus tells his disciples in John’s Gospel that he has come “that they [we] may have life, and have it more abundantly.” John 10:10b

God’s promise is life: overflowing, abundant, can’t-keep-it-to-myself life that not only satisfies our deepest longings, but also runs over into the lives of others. Life that lives in our hands when we serve the most vulnerable people in our community and world. Life that lives in our words when we put them to music and lift them to heaven to glorify God or when we use them to cheer those who are anxious or afraid. Life that lives in our hearts when we dare to believe, even against all hope, that new life is always possible, that despite all evidence to the contrary, God will never give up on us. Life that lives where Jesus invites us to go – to places of lifelessness and despair in order to bless and sanctify even the most hopeless situation with the abiding presence of Christ.

Abundant life is our destiny – life that is contagious and filled with joy and peace and contentment and grace. Our life in faith not only empowers us to be agents of that abundant life, but to recognize explosions of life and joy all around each and every day.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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