Sunday, August 19, 2018

Bread in the wilderness

A sermon on John 6:51-58

One time I went on a retreat to a monastery. I do this every now and then. It happened that this particular time,I was in the middle of one of those dry spells, where God seemed very far away from me (or I felt very far away from God), where I felt that my spiritual well was running dry. So it wasn’t just rest and prayer that I needed. I needed to reconnect and experience the divine as something real. I needed sustenance. And I really didn’t know what to do.

So I sat with a brother and confessed my spiritual dryness and asked for help. Monks are great in situations like this - they don’t look at you in horror and ask what’s wrong with you, you religious professional? Instead, they nod sagely.They understand spiritual dryness. They understand the distressing disconnection that can happen between you and God in the midst of real life and they don’t offer up some platitude like “just trust in God and it will all work out” or ask you if you’ve prayed about it.

Nope. The brother assigned me an art project. I looked at him with one eyebrow raised. He meant it.Upstairs in the library I would find a sketch pad and some colored pencils. Maybe I could draw an expression of my feelings or my situation. I felt like a first grader.

I spent a long time not going up to the library before I decided, since I really was distressed, to give it a try. After all, trying to think my way out of it had not worked. Now, I consider myself an artistic person, but I can’t actually draw very well. Of course, this wasn’t about creating a beautiful picture anyway.

I let my colored pencil range around on the paper.And then, I don’t know, I kind of got into it.

What I ended up with after a while was a simple drawing of a heart locked in a cave. There was yellow light coming out of the cave and it was dark around the outside of the cave, and across the entrance was a portcullis, one of those medieval gates on a castle. I didn’t know if that was my heart locked up or if it was God that was locked up, whether something was locked in or I was locked out, but either way, it seemed a fair representation of how I was feeling. I looked at it for a long time.

The next morning I went into the chapel for the service of Holy Eucharist. I got there a few minutes early and sat gazing at the beautiful marble altar, which is situated under an arched marble canopy supported by marble columns (the technical term is baldachin for you church architecture nerds). And as my eyes rested on it, I became aware of how much it looked like that cave I had drawn in my simple picture. That cave that held the heart. That cave that held the light.

I don’t remember what the lessons were that morning nor do I recall the sermon. What I experienced was a sudden intense desire for the bread and the wine that sat on the altar. I could hardly wait for the celebrant to finish the Eucharistic prayer and give out that bread and that wine. 

Tears ran down my cheeks. It was the bread and wine that was the connection and it is the bread and wine that is the sustenance and all I had to do was put out my hands and receive it. Taking that bread and wine into my body was how I would become one with Christ - something I knew in my head all along but was suddenly experiencing anew in real life. 

And continuing to receive it at every Eucharist was how God would sustain me in my wilderness. It was God’s promise “I will be with you” made good and made real. I could touch it, I could taste it, I would eat it.

We all end up in the wilderness sometimes. Rocked by horrifying news, like this week’s report about the long history of children being sexually abused by priests, strung out from family strife, exhausted from constant political drama, suffering from illness or grief or loneliness, angry about injustice, we can find ourselves bewildered, feeling lost, disconnected.

And when that happens, we long to reconnect, to experience the divine, to be sustained amid whatever it is that saps us of the life abundant Jesus wants for us.

Thomas Aquinas called the Eucharist spiritual food and spiritual medicine. St. Ignatius called it medicine for immortality. Medieval people were known to sneak communion bread out of church to keep it at home for protection from plague and other evils, which was frowned upon by the church as superstitious practice. 

There is great power in the Eucharistic meal, but like medicine, it is meant to be taken into our bodies to become part of us and to strengthen us. Jesus says that is how we abide in God and God abides in us. 
St. Augustine thought that we should say this when distributing the bread: “Behold who you are, become what you receive.”

And here’s the thing. Jesus meets us where we are whenever we come to the altar to receive, even if we are in bewilderment. This is to me the most beautiful part. I like the way David Henson, a fellow Episcopal priest in North Carolina, puts it, “The bread of life doesn’t come to us whole, untouched, or unscathed by the world. Instead, it comes to us broken and fractured. . . . [W]e don’t come to this table unbroken either. We come feeling fractured, sometimes torn apart by the sorrows of life.

“The body of Christ is broken because we are. The blood of Christ is poured out because we are. . . .In the midst of our questions of Why God? or our anger at the injustice in the world, Christ simply says, Me, too. I’m here. I’ve been forsaken. I’ve been wounded. Here I am, broken, too.”

Behold who you are, become what you receive. Touch it and taste it and let it course through your body to sustain and heal you. Come to the altar and experience the promise of life, made good and made real.

Sunday, July 29, 2018


Last week I saw a picture of a duck with seventy-six ducklings - a common merganser, which is the kind with a little ponytail on the back of her head. I saw many, many baby ducks, not all hers biologically but all in her care in reality, gathered around her on the lake. Seventy-six of them bobbing along behind her, needing to be managed and led to the places where the food and shelter are and the predators are not. 

The same day I heard on the radio a senator from Nebraska say, “I literally live on the most productive land in the history of the world. And Nebraska grows far more food than we could ever conceivably consume.” 

Then I got home and saw that the TV was tuned in to a baseball game - or more exactly, to one game shown live on the left side of the screen while little pictures of a bunch of other games with basic stats updated with every pitch and hit and out on the right side of the screen, all while a ticker scrolled across the bottom listing all the scores from all kinds of other sports events along with news of injuries and trades and the like.

Later, I sat down to relax with the newspaper and before long I got caught up in many details about trade, foreign policy, national security, immigration law, whether there is life in that lake on Mars, and what number in the series is the new Tom Cruise-Mission Impossible movie.

And I thought to myself, today there is just a too-muchness of it all. I feel overwhelmed by the too-muchness of life.

I’ve been in this place before, many times, feeling that I need to pare things down so that I have some semblance of control, reducing the sheer number of topics galloping through my brain so that I can thoroughly understand just a few of them. To lessen the input and thereby achieve something like mastery coupled with an air of serenity. I imagine that this is what “having it all together” looks like, that this is the picture of maturity and success, a person who is able to manage the too-muchness of life.

But, Lord help me, I am so wrong about this. A beautiful life is not all about limitations. After all, Jesus said, I came that you might have life and have it abundantly. God said to Abraham, look up at the stars, look down at the grains of the desert sands, that is how many descendants you will have, more than you could ever count. Jesus’ first miracle was to turn jars of water into the equivalent of about a thousand bottles worth of excellent wine at a wedding in Cana. And his second miracle was to take a few pieces of bread and fish from a little boy’s lunch box and multiply them so to provide for the thousands of people who were following him, desperate for healing and wholeness and life and yes, so hungry for bread. 

In other words, God is not about inventing limits but all about too-muchness. Abundance. Overabundance - of beauty, of blessings, of love. God is all about overflowing-ness. 

God is all about the way your heart feels ready to burst wide open when you hold your newborn baby in your arms. About the way your eyes overflow with tears of both grief and gratitude when a loved one lies dying and the whole community comes out with food and flowers and visits and stories and hugs. About the way your soul soars when you see the vast ocean and sky above it and you know there’s another beautiful world under the water and yet another above the clouds, or a bee rising from a flower carrying so much pollen saddlebagged on its legs that you wonder how it ever lifted off on such delicate wings. God is all about the way beauty washes over you when you watch the sun set amid ever-changing colors and shifting shafts of light, the way your whole body thrums on a summer evening when a hundred tiny tree frogs whose rhythmic songs can be heard a mile away begin to whirr in your back yard, the way you breathe in sharply and in awe when you gaze at the Milky Way from a dark site.

Ancient people believed that if you looked at God, you would die. This is not because God was mean or vengeful but because a mere human could not withstand the abundance of glory that surrounded God. God was too powerful, too beautiful, too radiant, too holy, too awesome to come too near. One might just get blown away in the presence of God. And yet we are attracted to the overwhelming power and the goodness and the love and the great mystery of God.

So there is a too-muchness of God and of life in God and we humans are both capable and incapable of dealing with it. Creation may be shot through with divinity and humans may carry a holy spark, but there is a point when we can become stupefied by the abundance. We may wander through our lives oblivious to the too-muchness because that’s the way we can cope. To think about it continually is in itself too much. I’m afraid that if I feel all the feelings all the time, I’ll just be reduced to quivering jelly.

But how else am I going to be able to recognize the work of God in the world? How else am I going to be able to hold on to hope, to carry the flame of the overwhelming love of God into the world, to live the abundant life Jesus says he wants for me? How else am I going to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind unless I let the too-muchness of God’s abundance wash over me, trusting that I will not drown in its overflowing holiness?

I was skimming through my Twitter feed the other day (yes, I know, I know - Twitter has a bad reputation as a time suck and a cesspool but mine is awesome) when I came across this from American poet Chen Chen. “Being a functioning person while being a poet: I am simultaneously trying to be less overwhelmed by the world and more.” 

And I thought, yes. That’s it. That’s it exactly. I try to be less overwhelmed because I am a limited human being who imagines that serenity is to be found among limitations, who is afraid of being blown away by the too-muchness of life. I cling to what I can get my arms around or my head around, to what I think I can control and understand, even if it means I go through life wearing blinders. 

And yet, as someone who wants to be close to God, God who is exquisite poetry to my workaday prose, I want to lay myself open to be overwhelmed by the sunset and the mystery of how pollen-laden bees fly and the taste of chocolate covered strawberries and the perfume of a damask rose and the seventy-six ducklings and the magic of color-changing cuttlefish and the kindness of friends and fierce love for family. 

I want to be filled to the brim and overflowing with life with more to spare just like the wine at Cana and the bread on the mountain. I want to never run out of anything good and holy. I want to know in my bones and my flesh and my soul that whatever difficult too-muchness the world dishes out is answered by the holy too-muchness of God’s lavish, creative, generative love in which I can both lose and find myself.

Last week, we read that Jesus was so busy with his healing and his teaching and his compassion that there wasn’t even time to eat. That he called his disciples away for rest but they got no rest because there was so much need among the people. And so in his love for them he kept up his work.

But today Jesus leads them all to a holy place and says, now, make the people sit down on the soft green grass in this rocky, brown wilderness, let them stop and sit and eat as much as they want. The too-muchness of their need is met by the too-muchness of the bread, and the people realize that they want this kind of life for ever. 

And, oh, so do I. So do I. 

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.


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