Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Glory of God

Nearly fifteen years ago now, I spent a few months serving at the Church of the Holy Comforter, a neighborhood parish in southeast Atlanta. Sixty to seventy percent of the folks in that congregation suffer from mental or physical disabilities. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, people who live in personal care homes around the city are brought by bus to Holy Comforter’s Friendship Center to spend several daytime hours participating in arts and crafts, gardening, singing, maybe getting a haircut or a wellness check. And on Wednesday nights they gather for worship followed by a community supper.

A retired priest I knew, Tom Stubbs, was a regular volunteer, serving folks marginalized by poverty and mental illness who came to the Friendship Center. Tom was very hard of hearing and his memory was not so great. So he came up with an idea: why not make permanent name badges for everyone? That would help him call them by their names. 

So, by the time I came along, everyone at the Friendship Center was sporting a gold-colored plastic badge on their shirts, with the wearer’s name engraved in large block letters in the middle and “Friend” engraved in fancier letters across the top. 

These little "friend badges” turned out to be agents of transformation. A simple plastic pin transforms the schizophrenic man into a friend named Reggie. A simple plastic pin transforms the mentally disabled woman into a friend named Yvette. The regular crucifer and bell-ringer was Friend Barry; Friend John gave little talks about world history whenever the opportunity arose. Friend Anita was an expert weaver. Simple plastic pins transformed the community from an assortment of unusual folks who are labeled in so many (and often negative) ways to a community of people who literally define themselves and each other as friends. 

And when I arrived, they called me friend, too.

It was there at Holy Comforter I once witnessed the transfiguration, and I use that word advisedly, of James, a difficult and often hostile man with severe mental illness. The first time I met James, he was climbing the steps to the church and he stumbled. One of my colleagues (we were a group of lay folks exploring a call to the priesthood) reached out to steady him, but James grabbed the railing, pulled himself back up, looked him in the eye and growled, “If you touch me, I will kill you.” We drew back, a little nervous and a little afraid suddenly and acutely aware that we were not, as the saying goes, in Kansas any more. That was our first day at Holy Comforter where there is, as is mentioned on their website, never a dull moment.

A few weeks later, near the end of the closing hymn at Wednesday night Eucharist, James abruptly left his place in the pew and purposefully strode forward to stand in front of the altar. He began rocking back and forth as he does, and I watched with some trepidation, wondering what he was going to do. Suddenly, James began to smile broadly and then he began to positively glow as he first hugged himself and then conducted the congregation in the singing of another joyful round of Jesus Loves Me. His face was shining with joy. My face became wet with tears. 

If St. Irenaeus was right that the Glory of God is a human being fully alive, then surely it was the Glory of God I saw that day as James was transfigured - just for a few moments - among his loving community of friends who all knew deep in their hearts that whatever else happens to them, Jesus loves them.

I supposed that James had just had an encounter with God, and God’s glory shone through his face, and I beheld it with awe and wonder. And after that, he was not the same to me, even though his usual difficult behavior returned soon enough. It was just a moment, a fleeting glimpse, but it was a holy and unforgettable moment in which James’s true nature was revealed, and maybe it wasn’t even James but I who was having an encounter with God.

In his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton wrote so beautifully about the time he was out running errands for his monastery in Louisville, Kentucky, and suddenly he realized that he loved all the people passing by on the busy street, right there at the corner of Walnut and Fourth, that they all belonged to each other and thus could not be alien to one another. He said, “Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts … where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.”

“This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…”

“But” he went on, “it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”

I waffle about that last part—why can’t we tell people that they are all  walking around shining like the sun? I imagine I would like it myself to be told such a thing. But I think I understand his point.

Perhaps the emphasis is properly focused on experience - of our seeing that glory among our fellow humans. Perhaps it is not the fact of their shining but our experience of beholding it that transforms us, that liberates us from the bondage of tribalism and prejudice, frees us from our tendency to categorize and hold ourselves out as different (in a good way) from others who we perceive to be different (in a bad way). We are such a fractured people, polarized, splitting into factions within factions (even the church does this); and we abuse each other in thought, word, and deed, in person, on social media, on television, in print and online. We are alienated from each other because of our habit of drawing lines between ourselves and those of other skin color, gender, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, political party, mental or physical health differences, religion, geographical region, educational status, etc. etc. etc. Sometimes I am amazed at how finely we can make distinctions between ourselves and others and dismayed at how easily we slip into seeing others as Other with a capital O - not us, not like us, maybe not even fully human and so not deserving of regard or success or happiness or even rights.

Perhaps it is only on those occasions when the veil is briefly lifted that we can see what has been there all along, the shining secret beauty and holiness of every human heart, which carries within it the imprint and image of God.

Who was it that was changed that Wednesday evening at Holy Comforter? Was it James or was it me? Or was it that he was transfigured and I was transformed upon witnessing it? Such mysterious but essential concepts - transformation, transfiguration, liberation, freedom from illusory difference, joy, relief from alienation, the core of our reality - maybe these cannot be told or explained, but only experienced. And maybe we can only take it in for a moment - a flash - at a time or else we’d just die of constant ecstasy.

And what do we do when we have seen God’s glory? Do we shout, do we cry, do we bow, do we fall to our knees, do we withdraw from the world to think it over, to reflect? Do we babble some nonsense or run away to hide?

What we did do next, both James and I, along with all the other friends wearing their gold-colored plastic friend badges, was to say Amen, and Thanks Be to God, and then we went to the dining hall and ate our supper together.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

1968: Confessions of a Thirteen Year Old

In 1968, I was in the 7th grade, thirteen, no longer a child but sometimes a girl thriving on drama and crazy about boys and sometimes a budding adult becoming cognizant of the bigger picture, a new citizen of the wider world. 

Our family ate supper at 6 o’clock, which was also the time when Channel 5 broadcast the evening news, and my dad started leaving the TV on while we ate. There was a lot of news. The Summer of Love was over. The Tet Offensive raged in Vietnam. The President signed the Fair Housing Act. There was unrest on college campuses and in cities. Sometimes protest was peaceful, and sometimes it was violent. Sometimes it was about war, and sometimes it was about race.

The images on TV were supplemented by images in the Raleigh newspaper and in magazines like Life and Time. Men in helmets, squadrons of helicopters, fringe-wearing hippies, dogs and water canons, and people flashing the peace sign, and the first photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s surface taken from a spacecraft in orbit. Robert Kennedy lying on the floor in a hotel kitchen. Martin Luther King, Jr., lying on a hotel balcony. A line of black men walking down the sidewalk wearing signs that said I Am a Man. On their right stood soldiers toting bayonetted guns and on their left were tanks in the street.

In my small town, the local newspaper didn’t carry these kinds of photos. Instead, there were scenes from the high school football game and headshots of local politicians and beaming garden club award recipients. Once there was a picture of me when I was the diving champion at the pool. There was news, too, without pictures, news about the ongoing litigation over the court-ordered desegregation of our school system. 

The writeups identified by name and address the black families that had applied for their children to attend to the white school. To my school. The school board gave out those names and addresses to be published, that was news, but what was not reported was when white people in my town went to those addresses and poured oil in their wells or fired shots into their windows or when a cross was burned in their yard in the middle of the night.

And certainly it was never published that some white boys in my brother’s class threw the books of their one black classmate - his name was Jerome - into the toilet that they had just used. It was my brother who told me that.

On April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech in support of the sanitation workers who were on strike in the aftermath of the deaths of two workers taking shelter in a garbage truck during a rainstorm. The sanitation workers were the ones who wore the signs that said, I Am a Man. 

In his speech he called to mind the story of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a man who had fallen among thieves on the way to Jericho. He was left for dead on the side of the road, and a Levite and a priest passed him by. They didn’t stop to help the fallen man. 

Dr. King imagined that the priest and the Levite were afraid that they might be robbed and beaten too. He imagined that they said to themselves, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan, a man of another tribe, a hated tribe, came by, and he reversed the question and said. “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” And so he stopped and bound up the man’s wounds and carried him to safety.

On April 4, 1968 Dr. King’s life was ended at age 39. Our local paper was published only twice a week, so the next edition after his death is dated April 9. The headline read: Quiet returns to our community following weekend of violence, arson, and high tension. The article noted broken windows around town, two fires, and the theft of some whisky. The April 11 edition included a story reporting that despite what the courts said, the school board believed it was not responsible for the violent activities of the Ku Klux Klan against black families who had applied to white schools whose addresses were published in the paper. 

I was just 13 with the world coming into focus. It made an impression on me that there were people who had to wear signs saying they were human.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Fabio in the Wilderness

A few years ago, I discovered a painting of John the Baptist that shocked me. If you are at all into Christian art, you know that normally we see John the Baptist depicted as a gaunt and grizzled guy with really bad hair and wearing animal skins, pointing to Jesus who is nearby, usually on a cross. He looks like the kind of guy who calls people a brood of vipers, which, after Repent! is his best known line.

The painting I saw, though, was so very different from that. This John the Baptist is young, with a glorious cascade of curls  —he reminded me of Kenny G —and soft facial features. His head is cocked and he looks right at you in gentle greeting. And he points, not to Jesus who is not even in this picture, but up to heaven. And, get this, he is smiling. Smiling - even more than the Mona Lisa, that enigmatic lady who was created by the same artist, Leonardo da Vinci. This was sort of like John the Baptist as played by Fabio. I was shocked but also entranced. So I did some research. 

It turns out that there’s been some negative commentary on Leonardo’s painting over the centuries. Critics were affronted by this depiction of John. He’s supposed to be a fiery ascetic, challenging you as you take in the scene. He’s not supposed to be smiling as if to beckon you gently.  Some even said that this painting could not really be by the great Leonardo da Vinci because he would have known better than to paint a good-looking, friendly J the B with no Jesus to baptize or point to. It must have been painted by one of his assistants or students, they said. It’s a terrible painting, they said. This is blasphemous, they said.

But bluntly calling people a brood of vipers, a nest of deadly snakes, is not all that John is about. He’s not simply a wild-eyed character standing on the street corner shouting at people like a crazy person and holding up a placard that says you’re all going to hell. 

In fact, once you get past the bombastic opening of his exhortation, he practically sounds like Mr. Rogers. When the people, genuinely concerned about his warning, ask him one by one, what shall we do then to bear good fruit? He simply says, share. Share what you have. Be fair. Be fair in your dealings with others. And don’t use your power to bully.

He doesn’t tell the tax collectors they have to quit their jobs. He doesn’t tell the soldiers they have to become conscientious objectors. He doesn’t tell the poor they have to work harder so they can afford a donation to a charity. They can bear fruit just as they are, just where they are, by sharing what they have, by being honest and fair, by showing mercy. That’s it.

This all sounds so good to the people that they start to wonder if this John could be the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. Yes, he certainly got their attention with some blunt talk, but in essence his message is about kindness and generosity, about justice and mercy, about paying attention to and nurturing the common good. This is the good news that John preaches to the people.

Perhaps it was this aspect of John’s proclamation that Leonardo was trying to portray in his unorthodox portrait. A man pointing to heaven and issuing a simple and loving invitation to bear fruit, as you are, where you are, in response to God’s mercy and desire for reconciliation, in response to God’s offer of salvation. 

This John is the forerunner of the savior who comes to make the blind see and the lame walk and to set the captives free, a savior who comes to deliver us from bondage to things that diminish us as children of God:  Things like selfishness and greed, bullying and hate, violence and oppression, like victim blaming and get ahead-ism and, perhaps most deadly and at the root of it all, indifference to suffering.

And so we can see why the call to repentance. We are all implicated in systems of inequality and greed and subject to fear of those we don’t know or understand. That’s part of the nature of belonging to human society. John asks, ok John demands, that we notice that. 

He demands that we take notice of the poisonous webs of racism and sexism and classism that we are all caught up in, that we notice the widening gap between rich and poor, that we notice our privilege and notice the ill treatment of strangers and even children of strangers and says, repent. Turn away from those things. Reorient yourself toward God and God’s justice and righteousness.

And maybe some of us need to hear that call to repentance in its raw form to wake up from complacency or to jolt us out of the self-protection mode in which we find ourselves hiding from the busy, noisy, demanding, overwhelming world out there. 

But here is the good news. At its heart, John’s message about bearing good fruit points us to the places where we already are and beckons us to practice honesty, to share, to be satisfied with what we have, to treat others with respect and compassion, to support instead of intimidate. These do not require Herculean efforts, or moving to a third-world country, or special equipment, or advanced degrees, or more money than we already have.

And every day in the place where I am, here in the St. Stephen’s community, I do see and hear about the good fruit you are bearing. 

On Mondays, volunteers assist hungry people shopping in our food pantry while others hand out bags of actual fruit to our neighbors in the East End. On Tuesdays, we offer wellness programs to help strengthen aging bodies. On Wednesdays, we knit prayer shawls for those struggling with frailty and illness. On Thursdays, we host groups that work to support children, or those with mental health issues or addiction, and groups that work against racism while lay ministers visit men and women in the city jail. On Fridays, stitchers create needlepoint memorials for the church and volunteers collate bulletins for Sunday worship while adults walk East end children to school and provide friendship and support. On Saturdays, gleaners collect food from the Farmers’ Market to give away on Mondays, and on Sundays we pray and sing and eat with one another, welcoming new friends into the community, connecting with, upholding and encouraging each other through prayer and worship and listening ears and loving touches. And that’s just a little of what I see here at church.

John says, in his own special way, that we are to be blessed by the coming of a savior who will take away our blemishes and frailties and failings - the chaff of our lives - and refine us into our pure selves, children of God. 

And in response, since we asked, we are to be a blessing in the world around us by sharing what we have, by being honest and fair, and by showing mercy. 

Dear people of God: That’s not a wild eyed bad hair crazy person rant on a street corner. That’s just love.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Giving ourselves away

Over the last few days, I’ve been looking online at pictures of places I used to go — old haunts of mine when I lived in the Florida Panhandle. 

I recognized that scenic stretch of Highway 98 at Carrabelle that runs along the shore of the St. George sound, now all buckled and broken up after Hurricane Michael. I saw that there’s now no road at all on Alligator Point, my go-to Friday afternoon beach in college, where the Tiki Hut bar is also gone. There was a boat tossed up against the post office in East Point, and everybody’s docks were ripped up at Shell Point where I used to go sailing. The funky Driftwood Inn at Mexico Beach is gutted and roofless, and St. Marks seafood market is covered in river sludge. 

And in between the photos of the places I used to go were photos of cars smashed by trees, boats splintered and slammed into each other, living rooms missing their walls, bedrooms missing their ceilings, refrigerators lying on concrete slabs where garages used to be.  

And there were photos of people sifting through the rubble, trying to salvage picture albums or jewelry or furniture, or, in the case of restaurants, beer, and a woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart convenience store, wondering where she should go now because her house was completely washed away by the storm.

And then I read Becky Lehman’s moving meditation in today’s Spirit about the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina just a few weeks ago. Her descriptions were so vivid, I didn’t need photos. I could see in my mind’s eye the piles of things in front of all the houses, stuff dragged out to be hauled away, and not just stuff but memories and keepsakes that hold laughter and beauty but now, as she so memorably put it, are “ruined things in public view,” “the visual representation of lives interrupted.”

I don’t know if the woman sitting in front of the Mr. Mart, wondering what to do, now that her house has been washed away, would enjoy hearing the story today of Jesus telling the man who knelt before him to get rid of all his possessions so he might inherit eternal life. 

It feels callous to hold up the virtues of voluntary poverty amid the real and understandable grief of those who have just lost everything they owned within the span of a few hours. And although we know deep inside that God always brings new life out of destruction, it feels a little too soon to press her to look at the bright side just yet. 

Sometimes we just have to sit with our grief and mourn our losses. Actually not just sometimes. None of us can really move on without acknowledging and grieving the things we have lost, be they possessions or memories or relationships. Jesus cried when his friend Lazarus died and Mary Magdalene went back to the tomb and stood there weeping after the disciples had gone home. The Israelites were devastated by the destruction of Jerusalem - the Psalms say that the people loved her very rubble and had pity on her dust.

And so let us acknowledge the pain that destruction brings. Let us grieve not only the loss of life, but the loss of a way of life for some and the loss of the material goods that supported the lives of others - beds to sleep in, refrigerators in which to keep food fresh, cars to take people to their jobs, shoes to protect their feet, roofs to shelter them from heat and cold and wind and rain. 

Let us not condemn but love as Jesus did the man who sadly walked away, grieving at just the thought of giving up everything he had. Surely we can relate. Nobody wants to lay themselves bare before the eyes of those who would judge. Nobody wants to be so vulnerable.

In the end, though, it is vulnerability that Jesus is offering as the way to the kingdom. Elsewhere he has said that we must become like children to enter it. We must be like those who are, and know they are, completely dependent on God. Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, relying on manna from heaven for their daily bread for forty long years, completely dependent on God. 

The hard truth is that we cannot save ourselves, we cannot grant ourselves the fullness of life God intends for us, neither by following the rules, nor by accumulating money and possessions to shield us from all the things we fear. Jesus knows we’d be better off if we could accept this. And yet he looked at the man kneeling before him and he loved him.

True connection comes from self abandonment in the face of love. Giving ourselves away, giving our wealth away, letting go of our shields and props, that’s what frees us from the bondage of stubborn self-reliance so that we might boldly approach the throne of grace. Giving ourselves away opens us up to the beauty of life in God, a life where it’s not scary to be vulnerable because there is always enough and more than enough, and we are cherished and safe and will be cared for even though we can’t quite let ourselves believe it.

According to news reports, back in Mexico Beach, rescue crews are going door to door, or what remains of doors, and combing through debris, to find everyone who needs help. Over in Panama City, people with generators are offering to charge their neighbors’ phones for them. The Sonny’s Barbecue staff started cooking all their pork and chicken and beef in the smokers in their parking lot - the meat would go bad with no refrigeration - and gave it out to all who came. A tapas bar with no electricity in Apalachicola fired up its gas grills to cook not only their own food but anything folks brought over from their own still-without-power homes to serve to first responders and locals alike.

The papers say these communities look like war zones, but to me they sound a bit like the kingdom of God. Amid destruction, people are searching for the lost, caring for each other, giving away what they have to those who have suffered. The vulnerable are being sought out and found and fed. 

The losses are real, and so is the love.

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.”


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