Sunday, May 27, 2018

Called to love (a sermon for Trinity Sunday)

For God so loved the world….

We’ve been hearing a lot about love in these last days. In his sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle last Saturday, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry asked the whole world to imagine a world in which love is the way. He talked about the transformative power of love - the love of God translated into all of our actions as God’s people. He begged us to remember that sacrificial love is redemptive and asserted that when love is the way, poverty will become history, hunger will end, justice will be abundant and we will all be in right relationship with God and each other. 

Then he reiterated that message in several TV interviews during the week. And on Friday, he preached about love again in Washington, DC, reminding us that above all, Jesus proclaimed this, the Great Commandment: love God and love our neighbors - 
all of our neighbors, he added, even the ones we don’t like. 

To follow Jesus means to love, and not just in a sentimental way. Those are powerful words. Bishop Curry preaches awesome sermons.

Now, we throw around words like “power” and “awesome” pretty casually these days, but in the Biblical sense, they are meant to convey things that are almost indescribable in mystery and in magnitude. Power in the Biblical sense is like nothing we’ve ever seen because it is an attribute of God. It is beyond formidable. It is beyond strong. 

Isaiah tries to get at just how mighty God is by saying that just the tip of the hem of God’s robe completely filled the Temple and that God is attended by six-winged seraphs, fabulous creatures who are crying out not just praise but also a warning - the most Holy of Holy Beings is near and that Holiness is so powerful that mere humans can hardly withstand being in its presence. 

Isaiah is terrified in the company of such power. Woe is me, he cries. I am not worthy to come near something so mighty, so holy. But one of the creatures brings fire to purify Isaiah to make him worthy and the rest is history. God wonders: Whom shall I send to live among and speak to my people? And Isaiah famously responds, Here am I. Send me.

Isaiah answers the call of God. He is in a sense reborn, certainly transformed, coming to the Temple as an ordinary person like you and me and leaving it a prophet of God.

Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century philosopher and theologian known as the Angelic Doctor of the Church, says that humans are a paradox - the only beings that straddle the divide between matter and spirit (something Jesus understood but Nicodemus had a little trouble with). We live in a material world, and we also interpret the world, and we creatively act upon the world with freedom and imagination. This is a reflection of the Trinity, to a certain extent - since we are made the image of God we reflect God’s nature, which is, to quote British theologian Tina Beattie, “a unity of three persons in an inexpressible relationship of generative, communicative and creative love…. [T]he human soul manifests that [Trinitarian nature] in its capacity to understand, interpret and love the world.”

Which brings us back to love. Love really is powerful and transformative, and like Isaiah, we are called to live out God’s love into the world. Despite our foibles and flaws we have been made worthy through Jesus to be the bearers of God’s love in a world that sorely needs it. The power of love is immense, awesome, world-changing. Our love is part of a greater love, the love that created us and saves us. And with a nod to what Jesus says to Nicodemus, we are called to act out of what comes from the Spirit, to transcend what we know so well of human frailty and love the world as God loves the world, indeed as God loves us, not in condemnation but with hope for the healing of every wrong and every wound.

This is an awesome task. Jesus is asking a lot of us when he calls us not only to love God but to love our neighbors in the Good Samaritan sense. Sometimes I feel like Isaiah, encountering the almightiness of God with fear that I’m not up to the task of loving God’s people the way God wants me to. Sometimes I feel that there are just too many wrongs and too many wounds and it’s all just overwhelming. I don’t always feel ready to say here am I, send me.

Where I am in error, of course, is thinking that anything is all up to me. That I am supposed to change the world by myself through extraordinary feats. But it’s the awesome power of God and God’s love that changes the world. By walking in love in my daily life, doing my daily things remembering God and God’s love, I am participating in that power, not providing it, for the transformation of the world. 

We are relational beings formed in the image of a relational God and love is both what binds us together and what empowers our actions. And as Christians, it is as individuals in community that we live out our calling. It is all of us together who transform the world through love.

I see love all the time right here at St. Stephen’s. I see it when folks in an Emmaus Group rally around one of their members who is in distress, bringing food or running errands. I see it on Mondays when volunteers assist the people who come to our food pantry while others sort and bag fresh fruit to give out to residents of Gilpin Court. I see it on Sundays when parishioners come to church bearing tuna and peanut butter with which to stock the grocery store. I see it on Saturdays when gleaners pick up produce donated by generous Farmers’ Market vendors. I see it in the summer when breakfast is prepared for the children who come to math camp. I see it at night when a group gathers in a circle for mutual support and spiritual friendship. 

And I see it farther afield, too. 

I see it in people working for justice; peace; care for God’s creation; and the nurture, protection, and welfare of children. In people who care for the sick and dying and for the poor and the homeless and the outcast and the stranger. I see it in people who are trying to love their neighbors, all their neighbors, as best they can. 

Most of us are not called to be prophets like Isaiah. But we are called to love. It is love itself that calls us, love that is stronger than death. And thanks be to God it is love that gives us the power to answer “Here am I, send me.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Doing unto others together

Like many of us, I have been captivated by the Olympic Games being held in South Korea these last two weeks. I have watched with delight the figure skaters, the downhill racers, the crazy people who snowboard backwards and flip around in the air. I’ve held my breath as the bobsleds race down the track at 80 miles per hour and skiers go skidding into the protective netting after crashing off the alpine course. I’ve smiled at the number of teddy bears thrown onto the ice rink after a skater’s successful program that the cute little girls go out to retrieve and do whatever it is they will do with them – give them to the skater backstage, perhaps?

But the most impressive moment in the Olympics for me was not the action of a winner but what happened at the end of the cross country race, the action of the guy who came in fourth to last. This was a young man from Tonga who just learned to ski on snow in the twelve weeks and came to the games expecting to come in last in the competitive cross country event. After all, Tonga is an island in the South Pacific. Not the kind of place you’d expect to find skiers of any kind. But this man, named Pita Taufatofua, trained hard and joined with nearly 120 other men to compete in the 15-kilometer cross country ski race in the Olympics.

Pita did not come in last as he had expected  - three others were behind him. He and the others waited at the finish line to welcome the last skier, from Mexico, also not exactly a skiers’ haven, as he crossed the finish line nearly 30 minutes after the winner of the race had come and gone. Pita stayed behind to welcome the Mexican skier with open arms and to congratulate him on finally finishing the grueling race.

I think of this gesture when I hear Jesus say, “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.” This is of course what we now call the Golden Rule. Notice that it starts with us. It starts with our own actions – let us look to find ways to treat others the way we would like to be treated. As Pita welcomed the last-place skier with warmth and appreciation, he was showing hospitality and friendship across competitive lines.  But unlike the winners who embrace on the podium as champions and masters, the guys at the end of the line were embracing with joy and relief because they had finished a grueling event, one that they had to put everything they had into just to finish it at all.

I enjoy watching the champions do their best and celebrate with them in their success. But I love even more those folks at the end rejoicing that they simply made it through the race. I can identify with them. For most of us, just getting through is about all we can muster sometimes. The days can be long and sometimes discouraging. Sometimes the goal is just to get through when all around us the world seems in chaos. When the news is troubling. When grief lurks just around the corner. It is tempting to cover up the effort it takes, to say that everything is fine when in fact we are struggling.

And so let us take a page from Pita the Tongan’s playbook. Let us welcome one another and show compassion and friendship to one another as we go about our days. Let us celebrate the every day victories, the just getting through. Let us recognize our fellow travelers in this journey of life and greet one another with joy and recognition that we are grateful for our companions. Let us in everything do to others as we would have them do to us.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A movie for Lent: 40

Every year I post this video called "40" during Lent, and every year I see something else in it that I missed before. So I'm posting it again.

Illustrations by Simon Smith; music by Explosions in the Sky.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday: Reward

Many of us puzzle over the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading from Matthew: "Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.... "   (Matthew 6:1-3, NRSV)

What's all this about being rewarded, and why is it that the hypocrites receive a reward?   We're pretty sure we're not supposed to emulate the hypocrites here, but, hey, what about their reward?

Perhaps we might put Jesus' words another way:  If you look to the world to reward you for your actions, then you'll get the world's reward.  You'll be noticed, which was probably what you were looking for.   If you do something for show, you'll get a showman's reward.  Perhaps applause, perhaps boos.  If you look to please or impress others, you will get a response from those others. 

But that's all you will get, because that's all the world can give you.

But God's gift is grace and peace and the life that really is life.  And that's so much more than the world could ever give.  That's the reward that comes from God, salvation, which is "all" that God has to offer.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Gathering around the door

Have you ever heard someone say, “We just don’t know what other people are carrying around with them; we do not know what burdens they bear”? This saying is usually preceded by an admonition to be kind. I fervently believe in this adage, which has been attributed to a variety of folks from Plato to Philo to 19th Century Scots author Ian McLaren: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

But our story today from Mark suggests that in fact, we often do know something about what burdens others bear. Sometimes because they have confided in us. Sometimes because we recognize the signs from our own experience. Sometimes because we have taken care to be tuned in to others around us, both near and far.

On Sunday evenings during communion at our Celtic service, four healing prayer ministers set themselves up in the two side chapels to wait for anyone and everyone who wishes to come forward to pray with them. We explain in our announcements and in our write-ups about healing prayer ministers that they are there “to pray with you about anything that is on your heart, either for yourself or for someone else;” for the world, in thanksgiving, or in sorrow or trouble. The time of prayer is mostly in silence, just opening ourselves to God in company, with no requirements, no judgment, no need for many words. 

The healing prayer ministers tell me that the most common request they get from those who come forward is to ask for prayers for others, not for themselves - prayers for a friend or a loved one. They bring those others into the circle of candle light to ask for healing for them.

And so I think of our healing prayer ministry whenever I read this verse from our story in Mark today:

“That evening at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.”

Think of that - the whole city brought to Jesus all who were sick or imprisoned by some kind of demon - whatever that even means. The whole city gathered to see the miracles, the healing, to witness Jesus’ resurrection power among those they loved, their friends, their neighbors, their relatives, everyone who had any need. But this is not just rubbernecking - they do not gather out of crass curiosity but with holy expectation. They know Jesus has the power to heal anything and they bring everyone they can think of to him. 

I’m really blown away by this image of everyone gathered around the door, with faith that Jesus is going to help those inside. I imagine that they scoured the countryside, that they didn’t just bring their bent-over grandmother, or their anxiety-ridden friend, or their neighbor suffering from cancer, but they remembered the man who walks the streets wearing the same dirty clothes every day, the woman who has to bring all her children with her to her second job at night because she has no-one to look after them, the teen who has been rejected and hangs around the coffee shop all the time instead going to school or home, those whose names they do not know but whose plights they have noticed and have compassion for.

And Jesus acts out of his compassion to heal, to restore. We might snicker at the thought of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law so that she can make him a sandwich, but in her day, Simon’s mother-in-law was the one whose privilege it was to host all guests who came to the home. She served Jesus from a place of honor, not as an underling or the downstairs maid. She was the host. So this is a justice issue for Jesus. His taking her by the hand to raise her up restores her dignity, giving her back to her place of honor. In return, she does without instruction what Jesus has to explain to James and John (later on) is the work of a true disciple: to serve rather than to be served.

Another thing I have learned from our healing prayer ministers is that, whether we realize it or not, we are all bound up together in this business of healing and therefore also by the business of suffering. Healing prayer ministers often say that they are the ones who are blessed by the ministry. They are moved, sometimes greatly, by the courage others show in bringing suffering to set before God together with someone who may otherwise be a stranger to them.  Sometimes the healing prayer ministers have no idea what the situation is or even the name of the person they are praying with, but everyone understands that God knows and that God hears our prayers. And in the end, they feel the relaxing of the shoulders of the one who came in with that burden and they feel the healing in themselves just as the person who came to be healed feels it.

I want to be one of those people who takes care to tune in to the needs of others. To remember to bring before God those who need God’s love and help. I want to be aware that people are out there fighting hard battles, ones I know nothing about personally, battles I have not had to fight myself. I want to have compassion, the kind of compassion that takes someone by the hand and restores their dignity. I want to remember that I am bound up in the suffering of others - and also that I am bound up in their healing if I have the courage to bring their suffering before God.

I believe that this work takes place on both a personal and a global level. Like many of you, I visit our own sick and homebound and I take them by the hand to say prayers with them. Sometimes a family gathers together to hold hands or lay hands on someone who is sick or to commend them to God.

And also like many of you, I am also moved by the situations of those I do not know but whose stories I have read or photos I have seen. I will never forget the video of the little Syrian boy named Omran sitting with a bloodied head and dusty body in an ambulance in Aleppo, or the photos of boats overflowing with refugees headed for the shore of Lesbos, Greece. I read in the newspaper that one-third of the people of Puerto Rico are still without power four months after the hurricane that knocked it out. And I hear on the radio nearly every day that a bomb has blown up or there has been a shooting somewhere. These are people and situations I want to bring before God for healing - and I want to be healed, too, from the anxiety I feel about the way the world is sometimes.

I’m not suggesting that we ask for healing so we can hide from the world’s ills. I’m suggesting that like Jesus we live out of our place of compassion because we are all bound up together with those we know and those we do not know who have need or trouble. I am suggesting that like the people in the Gospel story, and the people who come to our Celtic healing prayer ministers, we have the courage to bring before Jesus all we know and even those we do not know who are fighting hard battles. 

And most of all, I am suggesting that we gather around the doors in fervent belief and holy expectation that it is God’s will to make everyone everywhere whole.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


Fra Angelico holy family painted in a cell at San Marco, Florence

If you go down to the beach around midnight - one of those edge-of-the-world beaches like Hatteras or St. George Island, where there’s no gaudily lit-up strip or high rise hotels calling attention to themselves with spotlights - if you go down to the beach around midnight you can see heaven. Technically, what you see is the Milky Way, but as far as I’m concerned it is what actual heaven looks like. Heaven in the heavens, the sparkling glowing home of God and all the angels, luminous matter silently rotating among hundreds of billions of stars - a galaxy, our galaxy, 100,000 light years in diameter.

One year when my boys were small, we rented a house on such a beach during the time of the mid-summer Perseid meteor shower. After they went to bed after a long day of jumping in waves and digging in sand and collecting shells, I went outside to sit on the plastic porch chair, head thrown back and face upturned, trying not to blink, to watch for shooting stars. It was after midnight. One would occasionally zoom up and flash overhead as if traveling in the cosmic fast lane past all the other stars into heaven itself. But my favorite ones were the ones that seemed to be speeding down, toward the horizon, like an angel coming to make a heavenly announcement on earth. 

It was like Christmas in July and I gasped in awe at the celestial show that somehow I felt a part of as I sat in the deep dark and deep silence, because it wasn’t just up there, it was all around me, a silence punctuated only by the rhythmic lapping of a gentle surf, the very heartbeat of God. That which enveloped me was the same silence and dark and heartbeat permeating the whole universe. It was an otherworldly experience where there was nothing between me and the entire cosmos.

After midnight everything outside the city is so quiet that the stillness almost shimmers. It’s easy to imagine that the heavens are serenely just floating around in silence up there, the same for ever and ever. But there’s something in the makeup of our galaxy that causes it to create more new stars from celestial dust (the same as the dust that made us) all the time. Creation may be an almost magical phenomenon, but it’s not soundless. The birth of a star creates a cosmic melody. But it takes a particular kind of listening to hear it - our human ears cannot pick up the galactic sounds because they are so very deep.

And so with the birth of a savior. It takes a particular kind of listening to perceive him at busy noisy Christmas. On our Christmas cards and in our pageants the baby is surrounded by both the heartbeats and breath of sheep and cows and donkeys and oxen - the sounds of earthly life - but the heavenly sounds, the gloria excelsis, the angels’ song our souls yearn to experience, must be heard with something other than our ears.

In other words, the world around us is noisy but salvation itself arrives in shimmering silence, slipping into our hearts with only the sigh that love makes, a sigh too deep for words.

Tonight, Christmas truly comes, the thinnest time and thinnest place of all, when heaven really comes to earth, when there is nothing between us and God. Christmas is not way up there, but it is right here, among us, all around us. The heavenly is bound up with the earthly, the divine with the human, the cosmic with the particular. And the one who is born the king of the universe and the savior of the world is also the Lord of our particular hearts where we have indeed made a manger for his birth.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Birthday Special

Every year on December 22 I post this video in honor of Jesus of course, but also to commemorate the birth of our youngest child, son Jeffrey, who is 23 today. He and I came home from the hospital on Christmas Eve, and we always try to pay attention to his birthday even while all this other stuff is happening. He says it's hard to compete with Jesus when it comes to birthdays.

So here is the story of a baby, told by the children of St. Paul's Aukland (New Zealand).

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Recognizing Love, a sermon for Advent III

The year I was born, the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson released her first Christmas Album. The title track is the poignant 1930’s carol, Sweet Little Jesus Boy. 

“Sweet Little Jesus boy,” it goes, “they made you be born in a manger. Sweet little holy child, we didn’t know who you were. Didn’t know you’d come to save us Lord, to take our sins away. Our eyes were blind, we could not see - we didn’t know who you were.

It goes on, “The world treats you mean, Lord, treats me mean too. But that’s how things are down here. We don’t know who you are.”

“Look how we treated you. Please forgive us Lord, we didn’t know it was you.”

I think of this song when I heard the words of John: “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” John came to testify to the light that all might believe through him. John the Baptizer always points away from himself and to Jesus.

And the prophet Isaiah described the savior as the one who has been sent by God to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to build up and repair, to give justice, to lift up the lowly. Jesus quoted Isaiah when he first spoke in the Temple as he began his own ministry, and then said, “The Scripture is fulfilled." In other words, I have come to bring good news. I have come to heal, to comfort, to restore. It’s me. And the response was, “Oh, come on. Who does he think he is? This is Joseph’s son.” And they tried to throw him off a cliff.

We are told over and over again in the Bible who the savior is, who the savior will be, but somehow the people around him don’t always seem to get it. And I think sometimes neither do we. We have trouble translating the things Jesus said then to the way things are now. We have trouble recognizing the current version of lepers and tax collectors, trouble imagining who they are today. I listen to the news and wonder - are the Rohinga today’s outcast? Which among the refugees are the lepers? Could the undocumented be the equivalent of tax collectors? Are children without health care today’s lowly? Which poor are the ones Jesus loves, which prisoner is the one he wants to set free? Who is doing the work of Jesus among these?

Sometimes I hear people saying how Jesus thinks or the way Jesus wants us to act or what Jesus thinks of this group of people or another here in our world and I wonder who it is they are talking about. I’m not sure I recognize their version of Jesus. Perhaps they feel the same way about mine. We hear what we want to hear, I guess; we long for a savior who will save us by being on our side and against those we perceive to be on another side.

So I wonder. Who are we really waiting for this year? And what kind of witness to the light is among us today that we do not recognize as pointing to Jesus, Jesus who spent quite a lot of time showing that he is among the least and the lost, that’s where he is to be found, not in a mansion, not among the well-to-do but among the sick and the imprisoned and the poor, and the ones who are treated badly by society.

And yet despite these directions, we might miss him. Because it’s just not that hard to be blind to the marginalized. It’s not that hard to think that people are poor because they don’t work hard enough, that they are sick because they did not make good choices, that they are imprisoned and rejected because they need to be punished for their ignorance or their desperation. We want people to deserve what they get and get what they deserve. That’s how things are down here.

But we have a chance again this Advent to mend our ways, to repent of our blindness, to try again to see who specifically it is among us who needs to be treated as if they were as holy and precious as God. Who exactly it is among us who testifies to God’s abundant love, who points in reverence and gratitude to the one who loves and lives among the least? We have the chance again to let God come to us in the way God must come to us, wrapped in holy vulnerability and humble humanity, in the person of a nobody born to nobody parents, not to be pitied but to be honored. We have a chance to repent of our having an image of God that Anne Lamott warns us is not God if he just happens to hate all the same people we do.

John calls us to repentance and also he inspires us to witness to God in the way that he does. To really see God somewhere specifically in the world doing justice and loving mercy and eating and drinking with the downtrodden and doing the work of restoration to dignity. And to point with reverence and awe to that as witnesses ourselves, the way John points to Jesus to say behold the Lamb of God, the light of the world. 

It’s up to us now to say this is our God, who is binding up these particular brokenhearted and building up this particular thing that specifically has been torn down, who is smashing through all the barriers we have put up to make sure that he finds each and every beloved child of God in whatever wilderness we are wandering. This is our call, to really see God as God is and not as we wish God would be, and to be witnesses ourselves, to point to and to name divine holiness wherever we see it.

With Mahalia Jackson I want to say, Forgive us Lord, for the way we treat each other, knowing that this is the way we are also treating you. With Isaiah I want to say let us repair and build up, let us lift up the lowly and let us love justice. And with John to say, Behold! Indeed! I do see the light.


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