Sunday, April 04, 2021

The lengths that God will go to restore community

Easter Sunday, 2021

I don't know if you noticed but once again, the Triduum landed on another holy feast: Maundy Thursday was also April Fool's Day. So during this octave of All Fooles Day, I am reminded of these sage words which come as both a proclamation and a warning: “Seeing is not believing. Our senses can deceive us.”

What? We are talking about Easter here, aren't we? Certainly!

“Seeing is not believing. Our senses can deceive us.” This is not advice that Yoda might give Luke Skywalker, but are words spoken by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. “Seeing is not believing.”

He goes on: “The cosmos … is stranger than we ever could have imagined. Light, time, space, gravity conspire to create realities which lie beyond human experience.”

He proceeds to reflect on the incredible discoveries of what the night sky has been telling us that until very recently we could not hear, let alone comprehend.

MIT physics professor Max Tegmark wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times a few years back in which he reported on what he calls “the bombshell announcement of the discovery of cosmology’s holy grail: telltale signature of ripples in the very fabric of space [from] our cosmic origins.

“If this discovery holds up,” he goes on to say, “it will go down as one of the greatest in the history of science.

“It teaches us humans that we need to think big,” he says, “because we are the masters of underestimation.”

We need to think big, because we are masters of underestimation.

I like that.

Our gathering on this Easter Day in and of itself is evidence of a ripple in the very fabric of reality. And this ripple invites us to more than think big, but to imagine and trust in the impossible. To put aside underestimation.

It all began early on the first day of the week. The women were confronted with the news, “He is not here, but has risen.” And that's where Mark's Gospel ends.

But they must have told somebody, because for one thing, we here we are today! Singing , hearing and proclaiming, and standing in awe of the power of God in the Risen Jesus.

Madeline L’Engle, who wrote A Wrinkle in Time, reflected on how God works through the impossible:

“The first of the gloriously impossible things that Jesus did was to be born — the power that created the universe come to live with us as one of us.  And now his time on earth was over, and in the eyes of the religious establishment of his day, he had failed and they had triumphed.  True, he had healed a few cripples and lepers, given sight to a few blind people, driven out a few demons; but he threatened the religious establishment and they killed him.  Or thought they did.”

This was hard new to digest. Even Jesus’ closest followers at first resisted the reports that “he is risen.” Because for all kinds of good reasons, such news was beyond their comprehension. They were still reeling from the horror and the terror of crucifixion. They were rattled, afraid, grief-stricken, demoralized, devastated -- undone.

In the months leading up to that first Easter, whenever Jesus brought up the question and manner of his death, his followers refused to accept it. The idea of death, let along crucifixion, was too much. They didn’t want to hear it. And if they could not imagine or contemplate his dying, then they would surely have tuned out any talk of resurrection.

Jesus told them -- but they could not hear it. They could not comprehend it. It was too big. It was too good to be true.

And all of the Gospels all agree on this point. Luke tells us that when they first heard the news from the women, it “seemed to them an idle tale.” You know what that means: empty talk, a silly story, a foolish yarn, utter nonsense, sheer humbug. We just heard in Mark how the women who came to the tomb could not process the news, even when delivered by angels.

Many of you here know what it’s like to live in the wake of death. You know it firsthand. It’s engulfing. We feel it in our bones. Death ripples through time and rips through our lives -- it tears us apart. We know it well, all too well.

All of Gospel accounts in the New Testament, the one from Mark this morning and all the other Gospels, were written at least 30 to 40 years after the events took place but by then the memory was well seated into the community's memory. And common to all these accounts is that no one saw it coming. They were completely blindsided by the resurrection. 

Then, as now, talk of resurrection sounds too good to be true. Too big. And even after they touched his wounds, ate with him, heard him teach the Scriptures, and watched him ascend to heaven, that memory of that initial surprise stuck with them.

Notice that public relations and spin control was not at the forefront of the minds of Jesus’ followers. You would have thought that 40 years after the events, when the Gospels were finally written down, the leadership of the early church would have ever so slightly shaped the stories to boost their own authority and legitimacy -- especially if one assumes that the original accounts were essentially fabricated in the first place. I mean, if you're going make something up as audacious as the Gospel, wouldn't you want to make yourself look good in the process? 

In today's world, it is easy to imagine Peter, James and John, for instance, going over the final edits of the accounts and proposing a rewrite something like this: “Yes, we were there on the morning of the third day, waiting for the stone to be rolled away, because he had told us it would be so! Sure enough, when the glorious news came: ‘He is risen!’ we, his closest trusted and most loyal companions, met up with him in Galilee as planned. And well, the rest is history!”

No, that’s not what happened! Not by a long shot! For whatever reason, they did not re-edit the story. Jesus’ first followers all admit that they were overwhelmed by his death -- confused, perplexed and deathly afraid.

These accounts ring true, precisely because they line up with what we know to be true about death.

It makes perfect sense that resurrection would be, on the face of it, nonsense – that the reality of it would take a while to sink in. It makes sense that it would be remembered as utterly inconceivable, unbelievable. As too big. As too good to be true. But at the same time, so undeniably true that the experience pierced through all their wonder, disbelief, and skepticism.

The apostle Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians twenty or so years after the time of Jesus, and it is the earliest written record of the resurrection we have in the New Testament. By that time, we read, it was regarded as “of first importance” in relation to the message about Jesus: that he died, was buried and was raised on the third day, and that he appeared to Peter, the 12 and then to 500 others at one time. And, Paul says, most of them are still alive, though some have died.

By that time, resurrection had become the explanation for their whole existence. Jesus’ resurrection had become the reason for hope for all who had died and will die. It had become a matter of first importance not just about Jesus but also about us -- all of us -- subject as we are to this human condition.

By then, it had become the cornerstone of the Christian message. They called it Gospel, or “good news.” The good news about Jesus, about God, about humanity, about life. The fabric of death that enshrouds all of humanity has been ripped open, and there is light. Undying light.

They understood that Christ did indeed harrow hell, because their own thinking and way of seeing and being was utterly transformed by encountering the Risen Jesus!

Before long, those early Christians had learned to think big. In Jesus, God had conspired to create a reality that until then had been beyond human experience and comprehension. There was something deeper than death. There was a love stronger than death.

I don't know if you noticed, but The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was martyred on this day 53 years ago in 1968. He once wrote about the lengths that God has gone to restore us to proper relationship with God. He says that the Christ’s incarnation is a real, practical confrontation with evil but one that does not resort to evil to overcome it. He says that the cross, in particular, is:

"...the eternal expression of the length to which God will go in order to restore broken community. The resurrection is the symbol of God's triumph over all the forces that seek to block community. The Holy Spirit is the continuing community creating reality that moves through history. He who works against community is working against the whole of creation."

What drives God’s resistance to sin and evil? Love. God’s divine (agape) love for us and for all creation. This is why King advocated non-violent resistance as the means to end injustice. Nonviolent resistance brings an end to hate by being the very embodiment of agape—God’s divine live.

The evidence of this ripple in the fabric of time -- the evidence of resurrection -- lies not in just these accounts, whether from the Gospel writers or from Paul. The evidence of the ripple of resurrection lies here with us, some 2,000 years beyond its origin.

So go ahead. Be astounded once again! And don't be afraid to "think big" – because we are now, as the disciples were then, “masters of underestimation!” In this time of strife, epidemic, and re-appraisal, allow yourself to be startled by the good news of Easter. And as you encounter the Risen Jesus, share that startling hope with everyone you meet!

Saturday, April 03, 2021

If you have ever known emptiness, today is your day.

Holy Saturday, April 3, 2010

If you have ever experienced your faith as being absent, today is your day. 

If you have ever experienced deep emptiness from your soul to your bones, today is your day. 

If you have ever known loss that cannot be filled, today is your day. 

If you have ever discovered, as C.S. Lewis did, that grief feels very much like fear, then this is your day. 

If you have ever gone through the motions because you don't know what else to do, this is your day. Holy Saturday is a day very easy to jump over. 

Today is a gorgeous spring day. People are out planting flowers and going to the store to buy for Easter dinner. Easter dresses are being tried on and egg hunts in the parks are happening as we speak. The world is busy and alive, and here we are in a darkened church before a bare cross and it feels empty. 

This is the kind of emptiness that any who has grieved the death of a loved one knows. It is like going through the motions at work, and confronting that first thanksgiving or Christmas or birthday knowing that the one we love is dead. 

I will bet that the followers of Jesus had the most somber, depressing Passover meal on record. But if they are at all like a lot of people I know, they will have done it. They will have read the words, and eaten the bitter herbs and the lamb, because...because what else could they do? Even if it was by rote, it was something. Something to anchor. Something to hold on to when there was nothing else. 

Holy Saturday is a day of absence, emptiness and numbness. If you have ever felt this way, this day is for you. 

The thing about Holy Saturday that is special is that it is the last day of the Old Creation. It's just that we don't know that yet. Just as we won't know that we have passed through the darkest moments of our grief until we suddenly find ourselves feeling again. We won't know until we look backwards. 

And here is the dreadful and true part of Holy Saturday. There is nothing we can do about it. All we can do is what I've said: slog through, go through the motions. We steer into the wave and hope that our boat is not swamped as it crashes over our heads. But the feast tells us that as we wait, as we slog through our fear and emptiness, Easter is coming. 

The disciples did not know that yet. We never know when we are in it. But Easter is coming. 

Our creeds and tradition say this is the time when Christ descended into hell and went among the dead. Holy Saturday reminds us that even in the emptiness, Christ is there. If we go down to Sheol, and walk among the dead, Christ is there. There is no place where we can go to escape God's love. 

But we don't know that now. We will know that tomorrow. In the meantime, this day is for you.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Holding our breath

Good Friday Sermon - April 22, 2011 

Christ is reigning from the tree. 
Come let us adore him. 

When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to play a game as rode in the car. If we drove past a cemetery we’d hold our breath. Where did that game come from? I don’t know. 

Maybe we got it from an old superstition, not wanting to breathe in bad spirits or the spirits of the dead. Maybe it was a way for the young to flip our noses at death. Maybe it was a way to take our mind off of the fact of death itself. In all honesty, I think we just wanted to see how long we could hold our breath. 

But I think there was more to it than that. I say that because I have done a lot of breath-holding in my life...especially around death. Games in the car are one thing, but the time came for me to confront death head on. 

Still, breath-holding happens, sometimes in strange ways. I remember once being asked kindly but firmly by a physician not to go around the hospital wearing my clerical garb of black shirt and dog collar. “People might think when you come in that they are dying,” he told me. I didn’t ask if he held his breath whenever I walked past as I used to do when driving past a cemetery. 

There have been moments in my life when I have been witness to death, where I have been called in to be the priest, the witness to God’s grace and the church’s representative to a person who is dying or has died and to loved ones. Sometimes I’ve been present when the person who has died is surrounded by family and friends and we prepared for that moment in prayer, in story-telling, and in tears. 

There have been other moments when the person was alone, virtually unknown except for perhaps a name on a license in a wallet or purse. People who have died violently, or suddenly, or was suddenly stricken with no one to help, for whom the only witnesses were an EMT or a nurse or a police officer. It is these people I think of when we say the Great Litany and we pray “From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.” 

For some of these, frankly, I would still hold my breath. I’d keep these deaths at arm’s length with a cool clinical eye. Yes, my heart would tug, but these—especially in hospital ministry—I would attempt to keep at a safe distance. If you don’t, you go cuckoo. 

But sometimes you can’t hide and you can’t hold your breath. The ones that took my breath away were the deaths of people close to me: my parents and family members, my friends and people in my parish. These were different to me. These were stark in their immediacy and impossible to hold at a clinical distance. This was when I could not hold my breath because there was no breath to hold. We will all face death—and not just our own!

We are told death is part and parcel of living. Jesus died. 

That is why we are here tonight. Jesus died. 

 It is important for me to say those two words in all their stark brevity. The bumper sticker tells us that Jesus died for our sins. We say that in our collects, prayers, scripture and story; and that is true. That is why he died. But when Jesus died there were no slogans, no anthems or hymns, no bumper stickers. In that moment it was just this simple fact: Jesus died.

We are tempted to jump past this moment and go straight to Easter. We are tempted to hold our breath and drive around this truth. It is like whistling in the dark—that nervous act of apparent confidence in the middle of the unknown. We do that when we are faced with a hard fact of life that we do not want to deal with. We hold our breath. We whistle in the dark. We cover our ears and hum. But no amount of avoidance can dodge this fact: Jesus died. 

Jesus did not pretend. He did not hold his breath and wait till it went away. He died.

If we forget that he died, or if we hold or breath or whistle past it, then we forget that Jesus lived, breathed, ate, loved, worked, grew as much as he taught, healed, preached and touched. Jesus had family and he had friends. He had enemies as well as people indifferent to his existence. He lived. Just like us. And he died.

I am told that in earthquake ravaged Christchurch, New Zealand…whose “Big One” happened about a month before the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan…that many churches are uninhabitable. Many are so damaged that repairs, if they can be repaired at all, could take years. So there are a lot of congregations without homes. These communities have had to learn to improvise. The big Presbyterian in Christchurch called Knox Church will hold their Easter day worship in a nearby funeral chapel. Their pastor, the Reverend Dr Geoff King, said "I guess it is ironic to be having a resurrection service in a funeral chapel."

I don’t know where they are holding their Good Friday services, but whether they go to the funeral chapel or not, they will find themselves in the same place as Jesus on the day of crucifixion…in the place of the dead. I sure hope they don’t hold their breath to keep death away. 

Whistling the dark won’t make it go away.

Jesus died. And so we live.

Christ is reigning from the tree. Come let us adore him.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Just a Closer Walk

Even though I grew up in New England (although born in Washington, DC), I have always loved "traditional" American folks music, that is to say so-called 'mountain music' that emanates from Appalachia. An early favorite is a song that, for me, sums up the Lenten journey: "Just a Closer Walk with Thee."

As we prepare for Easter, contemplate the true nature of our lives and relationships, this song describes our heart's longing for wholeness and healing that comes from our walk with Christ. This longing for hope and holiness changes our view of the world and our relationships. A closer walk with God in Christ means, for me, that we engage the world with integrity and with love. In many ways, the song echoes the collect for purity that Episcopalians and Anglicans around the world recite at the start of most Eucharists. The prayer, written in the 10th century, started out as a 'sacristy' prayer said by the clergy and chancel ministers before the start of the liturgy, but found it's way into the opening of the liturgy (as more and more things were added into the beginning and end.) Thomas Cranmer included it in the Book of Common Prayer.

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Here are the lyrics, and perhaps you can see the same connection between the desire of the prayer and the song that drew my heart to them both. 

I am weak but Thou art strong
Jesus keep me from all wrong
I'll be satisfied as long
As I walk, let me walk close to Thee
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be
Thro' this world of toil and snares,
If I falter, Lord, who cares?
Who with me my burden shares?
None but Thee, dear Lord, none but Thee.
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be
When my feeble life is o'er
Time for me will be no more
Guide me gently, safely o'er
To Thy kingdom's shore, to Thy shore
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be

Wednesday, February 17, 2021


Think about dust.

We think about dust as something you clean up. If something sits around too long, it gets dusty.

My grandmother kept a really, really clean house. Not spec to be found anywhere. And I can remember that even in her house, on a bright sunny day, when the rays of light just poured into the room, I could see little bits of dust floating around in the air. I was little, so I didn’t get it but when I would point this out, she was not a happy woman. To her this was bad news, these little points of light floating around. To me, it was wondrous.

Think about dust.

It’s everywhere. Not just on our bookshelves but in the air. Have you ever seen a forest fire or a brush fire? What one notices is the smoke rising in the air and eventually the wind dissipates that smoke, but the ash and the unburned material in that smoke is blown about and goes everywhere.

Archeologists can look at layers of rock and find whole epochs that change from one era to another. And those dividing lines in the dust are defined by layers of ash.

It is said that the very building blocks of life might have arrived on this planet as dust that hitched a ride on some comet or meteor that then struck the earth. The meteors and comets themselves are nothing more than the dust and debris from the big bang itself.

When you think about dust, the image in Genesis of God forming us out of the dust of the earth and animating us with the breath of life is not so hard to imagine. We really are made of dust.

Typically on Ash Wednesday, Christians put ashes on our foreheads. But not this year. Everywhere the drawing of ashen crosses on foreheads is discouraged because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In some places, people are sprinkling ashes over the head and shoulders of penitents (in manner once done in the middle ages), in other places the celebrant draws the cross on her or his own forehead on behalf of the people, and in still other places, people are given little containers filled with ashes to impose on themselves.

I am kind of taken with the last choice. It seems to me that if we are going to sit, even for a day in the ashes of our truth, then it seems right that we should own it and do our own smudging. 

But the idea of dust raining down on us puts me in mind of that cosmic dust ball that may have caused life itself to spring up, and this intrigues me, too.

Ritual notes for this day aside, putting on ashes is an old custom. At one time, not everyone in the Christian congregation placed ashes on their head, but only those who were acknowledging and confessing egregious sins. They made public their confession with these ashes. But in the Middle Ages, it became the practice for every Christian to submit to the ashes. The season of Lent became a time of public penitence for the whole church.

Today, the ashes mean these things, but many more. The ashes are a reminder of our origin from the earth. “Remember,” we say, “that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We are not the self-assured, comfortable, live-forever people that we try so often to look like. We are going to die, all of us; we know that. Ashes are a sign of that ultimate reality.

The ashes are also, of course, a sign of sin. We are tainted, stained, by our constant falsehoods and wrong actions. We are a people who know better, but who make wrong choices. It was not someone else who made us do it. It was not the fault of Satan. We were not possessed by demons. It was not the fault of our parents. It was not the fault of society. It was not our peer group or the culture around us. It was us.  

We are responsible. We have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

But today, I propose another meaning for these ashes. Out of these ashes, these signs of our mortal nature, comes something else. Once we recognize our own responsibility for wrongdoing, once we acknowledge our mortal and dusty nature, the ashes also become a sign of fertility.

If we are truly repentant, and truly cleansed, and open to the reality of God around us, then we are also fertile, ready to give growth to greatness.

When fires rage through a forest, everything is devastated. After a bad fire, everything is ruined. But over time, something miraculous happens. Trees that were thought to be dead sprout branches. Ground thought to be dead, brings out flowers and ferns and mosses and animals and birds. Soon a forest or a grassland devastated by fire becomes even more fertile and prosperous than before. The very ash makes for a richer soil. What was destroyed becomes the food for new life.

Ash Wednesday and Lent are, likewise, the burning and clearing of our Christian lives. We enter a time for confession, for penitence, for realization of our earthly nature. But this is also a fertile day, a time for self-examination and self-preparation. Today is getting us ready for something.

Just as ground is prepared in the Spring for luscious growth, today the ground of our lives, the soil of our souls, is being prepared. Maybe through our confession and mortal acknowledgement, we are emptied, opened, made ready for something. We will mark our lives with ashes, but they also point us to the resurrection we are preparing for this season. These ashes point to death. They also point to new life.

We are preparing our souls for the presence of God. We are going to do that by walking with Jesus to Jerusalem, by sharing in His passion and death, by sitting in the darkness of the tomb, and we will prepare for the new life to come.

But it takes time. It takes cultivation. The dense forest of our complicated lives is too thick. It is time to burn it away and make ready the fields for new growth.

Our God awaits our openness, our fertile ground. God comes into our lives with forgiveness, with deep love. Christians walk to the altar twice on Ash Wednesday.  Once when we receive ashes, signs of our mortality and penitence. And Christians receive bread and wine, the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands, the signal and presence of Christ who has risen from the dead. We receive the sign of our mortal nature, but we also receive the sign of fertile and abundant life.

Asserting My Rights

Asserting My Rights

Ash Wednesday, 2021

What is it about Lent and me?
I just can’t give up.

When I give up coffee, I eat more chocolate.
When I give up fast food, I watch more TV.

When I put my loose change in the mite box,
I expect the box to be grateful.

Every Lent, I am an errant driver in a field
Striking the tree that I was determined to miss.

Forty days seem like forty years
When I know I will fail in forty seconds.

So this Lent, I am going to give up giving up.
Instead, I will assert my rights.

I will focus wholeheartedly on my rights.
I will hold closely to myself the things that I know are mine.

I will have a good time this Lent
because I will take on what I know to be true.

But, knowing my track-record in past Lents,
I will start with the right to keep my expectations low.

I will insist on the right to be wrong.
For forty days I think I can live with not always being so right.

I will assert my right to flawed.
Do you think for six weeks, I can be free of seeming so terrific?

I will ascent to my right to be uncertain
For a month, perhaps I will discover faith.

I will claim my right to be ignorant
After a season of knowing less, maybe I will know mystery.

I will act on my right to be weak
And, for a moment, I won’t pretend I own what strength I have.

I will revel in my right to be foolish
And catch a glimpse of how I am seen.

I will rest in my right to be a creature
And enjoy for a second my part in the creation.

I will exercise my right to surrender
and live, for now, in my right not to be God.

Monday, January 18, 2021

"Call" is trickier than it looks

“Call” is a tricky subject. We take the words for granted in the church, but the whole idea is a mine-field of expectation, vision, and self-image that can bring beautiful vision to life, motivate us to do grand things, send us on journeys of faith… or lead us to do incredible evil. To paraphrase religious writer Frederick Buechner, “[Call] is like nitro-glycerin. It can either heal hearts or blow-up bridges.”

If you don’t believe me, just wait around this week and watch the news.

This week we commemorate The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and there is no doubt that he was called… called to lead his congregation, his people, his nation, to the civil, economic, social, and spiritual liberation of African-Americans from a 400 year history of enforced servitude and oppression… and that this call cost him his life.

And this week, we’ll inaugurate a new president, whom we hope will bring out our better angels instead of encouraging what we saw eleven days ago, when the countervailing forces of fear and evil were at work when thousands of mostly white men and women turned what seemed like a protest into an attempted insurrection so that they could overturn an election they lost at the behest of a president who came to power on the very resentment fear and anger that these people have harbored since well before The Rev. Dr. King first came on the national scene in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and 1956.

Now here’s the thing that serious Christians, serious people of faith, must come to terms with: both the civil rights movement and the capital rioters last week used the language of “call”--- of adherence to something higher than themselves—to justify and explain their actions, to motivate their followers, and find energy for their cause. It’s just that one was after a common good and the other perpetrated an evil.

As I said, “call” is a tricky subject.

How do we know if a “call” is from God or is coming from someplace else… someplace contrary to God?

Today we hear a snippet of scripture that sounds wonderful, even whimsical, at first: the call of God to Samuel. Samuel is considered a prophet in Jewish and Christian tradition, but he was the last of the Judges. Before Israel was governed by hereditary kings, they were governed by Judges. These were not people in long robes presiding over courtrooms but were senior religious figures who governed the nation. They not only took on the rabbinical role of settling local disputes, but it was thought that they—being especially attuned to God and particularly holy—could govern the nation.

Samuel was being raised by another Judge, named Eli, but while Eli might have been a person of great faith, and wise in the way of faith, he was a rotten judge of character when it came to his sons, Hophni and Phinehas. Hophni and Phinehas were lazy, drunken, and spoiled. They were sexual predators and thieves. Worse, they thought that because their Dad was a Judge, they could do pretty much as they pleased, and they did not pay Eli any mind when he would mildly rebuke them for their bad behavior. To top it off, these two neer-do-wells assumed that they’d inherit the family business and be the next Judges over Israel. When it came to his sons, Eli was a softy and a push-over

One night, the boy Samuel—who was the only child of Hannah, who had dedicated him to God, and so was being raised by Eli the Judge—was trying to get some sleep when he hears a voice calling his name. Samuel assumes it was Eli, and goes to find out what’s up. Eli, shaken awake by his young student sends him back to bed. Three times this happens! Finally Eli, realizes that it is God who is calling Samuel, so he says to his young padawan, “the next time you hear that voice, say ‘Yes, Lord, your servant listens.’” And that’s what happens. Samuel listens and finds that he is called by God to be a Judge and a Prophet.

Sweet, right?

Well, not so fast. The thing that Samuel learns from God is that God has pretty much had it with Eli not being able to discipline Hophni and Phinehas—and worse, putting up with the evil they did in Eli’s name abusing God’s name and authority in the process! And so, Eli is not only going to lose his job as Judge but will die in the process. When Eli presses Samuel to tell him what God said to the boy, he learns his fate and says “The Lord must do what is right.” Or, as we might say today, “it is what it is.”

So… you see what I mean, right? Call is a tricky thing!

And, that is before we get to what we talked about before… that sometimes we attribute some pretty horrible ideas to “being called by God.” How many tyrants, opportunists, and even everyday insecure people fall back on the language of “call” to justify their actions?

I mean, going back to the Rev. Dr. King, how many segregationists and white supremacists justified their active evil, or their passive acceptance of an obvious evil, by blaming their actions on the “call” or “will” of God. How many could not distinguish between “the way it’s always been” and the will of God?

In today’s Gospel, I can see why Jesus liked and called Nathaniel. Because he was as faithful as the day is long… and he was nobody’s fool. When Andrew and Philip come running to him about having found the Messiah—his response was “yeah, right.” But his friends persisted, and they invited him to come and see. Nathaniel’s call came through his skepticism and Jesus knew not to shower him with sweetness but instead to bust his chops. Nathaniel could take what he dished out and seeing that Jesus knew him in a different way, followed Jesus’ call to discipleship.

But sometimes “call” takes us beyond ourselves and these very human, very ingrained, ways of thinking.

To hear a call is to take one above and beyond oneself. A sense of call is a heady thing but it can go to your head, so one must be careful. And most calls, truth be told, are not specifically religious or to a religious vocation. The other day, I saw on Facebook, how a young woman who grew up in this parish, Keri Appleman, will start her turn as a student teacher, fulfilling what her mother Shae says is a lifelong dream… to become a teacher in a classroom! To undertake this calling in a time of pandemic will be a daunting task, but Keri is up to the task and we both congratulate and pray for her as she lives out her baptismal vows and her calling.

This weekend, Peg and I have been hosted by the Rev Can himself, Father Dale Grandfield and his husband Brad, as we get ready to move to Florida this week. It was this congregation that raised up Dale and sent him off to Seminary to pursue and test his call to ministry. He was our music director, and any parish would have assumed that this was enough, but Dale knew there was something more, and this community nurtured and encouraged that in him. Hearing and pursuing a call may take us in unexpected places.

This parish undertook a call to share in the feeding and sheltering of the poor, the hungry, and the homeless, and we know this ministry today as the Ark Community Meal. But way before Easton had Safe Harbor and before the revival of Easton’s downtown, this parish took turns with other churches in sheltering the homeless from the cold. This parish community’s heart for ministry, led by the vision of Fr. Jim Gill, Janet Charney, Fr. Cliff Carr, and so many others, attuned us to listen for God in creative ways that this led not to only Safe Harbor, but also ProJeCt of Easton, Cops’n’Kids, Turning Point, Third Street Alliance and so many other local agencies and ministries that serve the poor, the outcast, women, and children, and the elderly and those with special needs. Listening to a call can draw out from out amazing, holy, creativity.

This parish chose once and for all to repent of our past ambivalence (and resistance) about whether to welcome LGBTQ persons into our parish, and were so led to embrace the ministry of Sr. Helena Barrett, the first openly gay person to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, and encourage her along with Sr. Alison Joy to form a new Benedictine religious community. After the Pulse night club shooting, we as a parish decided to proudly proclaim that welcome publicly in both word and deed.

This parish hosted a pilot of the Episcopal Church’s “Becoming a Beloved Community,” and worked with Lafayette College and other community agencies to speak out about the sin of racism, held community workshops, and decided through the Vestry, that this parish—as a whole—would be life members of the NAACP through the Easton Branch.

During my time here, we have experimented in many ways responding to the call of God in a variety of ways. Our concerts and artistic endeavors, the founding the Chautauqua of the Two Rivers, our choral scholars—two of whom came to faith and were baptized as young adults in this community—our work with Lafayette. We adopted a school in Kajo-Keji, South Sudan, and made audacious decision to tithe our capital campaign to build that school.

My experience of this community over the past nineteen years that this is a community that strives to listen for the call of God in big and little ways. Even our bike rides, our picnics, and partnerships with other parishes were living responses to the call of God to “discover, share, and live God’s love as friends and apprentices of Jesus Christ.”

Now, the time has come to listen again to the call of God. God is taking you to a hope-filled future. It is a heady thing, this business about call, so be careful not to get ahead of yourselves. Time and again, I have learned the hard way that good intentions become pavers on the road to perdition when we let ourselves think that we know better than God what God wants. So stop, pray, listen, discern, pray some more, and—above all—don’t be bamboozled because the evil one wants our good intentions to lead us someplace else. Meet your calling with integrity, inquiry, and, yes, even humor, and God will honor you with great things and trust you to follow him as friends and apprentices of Jesus Christ.

Listen for God’s call. Respond to God’s voice. Be discomfited by God’s urging. And may God go with you in all you do.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 17, 2020, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Easton, Pennsylvania. This was my final sermon as 13th Rector of that parish.

Monday, December 07, 2020

Preparing the way

How do you get ready for Christmas?

Well, I don’t know about you but for me, certain things that have to happen: the tree goes up. The box of decorations comes up from the basement. Certain recipes are brought out. And we break out the Christmas music. I love it.

Don’t tell the Advent Police, but I think it’s kind of cool to go into a store and hear some pop singer sing “hear the news the angels bring.” I want to shout “Yay, team!”

Just the same, I must admit that, it is hard for the Good News to rise above all the noise about dancing snowmen and sleigh bells ringing. One of my antidotes to endless arrangements of the same old secular holiday fare is to drag out my CDs and find the Messiah by George Frederick Handel (1685–1759).

Handel composed the oratorio in just three weeks, from August 22 until September 14, 1741. He put the music together with the libretto prepared by Charles Jennens, which is nothing more or less than Old and New Testament passages from the King James Version of the Bible—then only 130 years old. It opens with poetry from Isaiah—the same passage we just heard today:

"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned" (Isaiah 40:1–2).

This is also where Gospel of Mark begins.

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” are the first words in the Gospel. From there Mark heads straight to the prophet Isaiah, who speaks of one who would come to make straight the paths before the coming of the Lord.

The Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God begins with John, the one who is preparing the way. He brings words of comfort and hope: `Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"

Words of comfort imply that there are people who need comforting. Words of hope mean that there were people without hope. When John spoke those words, he was speaking to first century Jews and he quoted their own scriptures. He reminds them of something that God has already done.

About five to six hundred years before John the Baptizer and Jesus, in 587 BC, the Jewish people experienced a devastating trauma. The Babylonian Empire came and conquered Israel and razed Jerusalem, including Solomon’s Temple. They sent the Jews into exile hoping to wipe out all memory of this once-great nation.

But 50 years later, along came Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians who conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and Judea and resume their customs and traditions. This is where we get the words that Mark uses to open his gospel. We hear these words of hope in Handel’s oratorio.

Prepare the way for the Lord! This is the message of John the Baptist brings more than five centuries after Isaiah. John prepares the way for Jesus, who through his incarnation, life, death and resurrection closes the gap and restores all of us to unity with God, each other and creation. But keep in mind: John knew he was preparing for something, he just didn’t know what. He would not live to see what he was preparing for unfold but would only catch a glimpse. John brought a message of forgiveness and hope. And he brought a message of change. He called people to turn away from sin and turn towards God.

A few years ago, I heard an extraordinary story of a person who leveled the way, who showed off the reign of God and the possibility of new life. When I heard it was like music to my ears. Maybe you heard too. It begins with a subway trip in New York City.

Every night, Julio Diaz, a 31-year-old social worker rode the subway to his home in the Bronx. And he always got off one stop early so he can eat at his favorite diner. But one night, his evening took an unexpected turn when Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform. He was confronted a teenage boy who pulled out a knife and demanded money.

Diaz gave him his wallet, but as the teen started to turn and run away, Diaz called out, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim strangely and he asked him 'Why are you doing this?'" Diaz told him that "If you're willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me ... hey, you're more than welcome.”

So the teen and Diaz went into the diner and sat in a booth, where, of course, Diaz knows everybody. The manager, the dishwashers, and the waiters all come by to say hi. The teen is perplexed. “You know everybody here,” he asks. “Do you own this place?'" Nah, Diaz says, he just eats there a lot.

“But you're even nice to the dishwasher.'"

Diaz replied, "Well, haven't you been taught you should be nice to everybody?"

"Yeah, but I didn't think people actually behaved that way," the teen said.

As they talked, Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. The teen was silent, answering only with a sad face.

When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, "Look, I guess you're going to have to pay for this bill 'cause you have my money and I can't pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I'll gladly treat you."

Without hesitation the teen returned the wallet. Diaz paid for dinner and then gave him $20 figuring maybe it'll help him. There was only one thing Dias asked for in return: the teen's knife.

We don’t know what happened to the teen who tried to mug Julio Diaz. But we can see from this moment—from this risky, “kids don’t try this at home,” outside the box, moment—that we all have the power in how we live to cooperate with God and herald the coming of Christ.

To prepare the way, people must change. And if we are going to, with God’s help, fill valleys of imperfection, level mountains of selfishness, and make straight the crooked ways of every one for themselves, anyone who brings a message of hope, anyone who offers a vision of God at work among us, anyone who stops to care for another all heralds of the coming of Christ and his redeeming work. It turns out that we have taken the mantle of John the Baptizer and we are the ones who are leveling the way and making ready for the coming of the Messiah.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

It’s a wilderness out there!

It’s a wilderness out there! It’s wild, crazy, full of contradictions and confusion. If we’re not careful, it could eat us up!

Which is why we are looking for shelter, a way station, for comfort. And that is why we cry out for justice and freedom and safety. This advent, we’ve been hearing both kinds of stories.

This season we’ve been hearing on kind of voices forecasting good news. It had been forecasted by media who sent out word well in advance.  People made their way from their Thanksgiving tables (some at midnight) to the malls and stores and worldwide web. They cried out in the wilderness for deals. The way was cleared and stores made ready, the paths for savings and deals galore were opened so that all could find the perfect gifts for loved ones.

Out of the wilderness commercials, advertisements, and emails proclaimed savings and people from the whole countryside, in fact the whole developed world came out and bought and charged. You should have seen some of the people, in all kinds of clothing, ragged by the days end. They looked and they looked, so the story goes, until at the close of the day Black Friday (the shopping day after Christmas) and Cyber Monday (the online shopping day after the thanksgiving weekend) saw the sale of over 53 billion in merchandise goodness. 

There is a wilderness within our own hearts, a hedge of brambles that too often separates us into opposing camps and allows us to justify casting off and discarding each other. 

It sounds like the two voices are worlds apart. But both the annual shopping frenzy and the recent protests arising out of violence—the cry for justice and the quest for gift –are deeply connected.

They are connected by "human desire." We humans are wired to desire and long for that which is outside of ourselves.

In the long lines and the great deals, there is a part of us seeking to purchase and make real our own image of life and relationships. We longs to somehow fill the emptiness that is inside with something that is outside of us.

And in the present political and social turmoil, in our of world of us vs. them, we cry out, we long for, a justice that both eludes us in the face of force that both defies and protects us.

We are built that way. God has made us people who long for more. Christians understand that human desire is created within us so that we will long for that which is outside of our selves - in particular God in Christ Jesus. We are created to be in relationship with God. We are created to long for God. And, we are created to long for one another.

It’s a problem as old as humanity because it goes with being human. We long for something so big and we fill that longing in all kinds of ways…none of them by themselves can do the job.

So we try to meet that longing by purchasing massive amounts of gifts to show we care. We fill that longing with goods and products that promise beauty and normalcy. We fill that longing with media and fill all the quiet moments with playlists and social media that demands our attention. We know there are empty spaces so we try to fill them with food, or things, or sound, or busy-ness.

Every now and then something happens, something that is just so wrong, just so out of kilter, just so unjust, that we get angry, we get up and we march, we fight, we agitate. We want society and the people who govern and our institutions to act fairly, to reflect compassion, to be just and restrain evil.

Advent is a season for longing, for looking for something better. And all the good ways we do good things—our homes, our gifts, our work, our voices, even our governance and our politics—all point us to the ways in which we long for something more.

The message of Mark's Gospel today really is good news. The message is that God is the one we are longing for and in his incarnation Jesus Christ came into the world to fill all the missing pieces of our own soul for the sake of the relationship God desires to have with us.

Not only do we desire God in all these ways. God longs for us.

Ireneaus, the second century bishop and saint, once described the whole reason for God's creative and saving work is God's own deep longing to walk with us, his creation, in the garden at the eve of the day.

The incarnation of Jesus helps to mend that hole in us, and fulfills God’s longing for us. Jesus’ incarnation, cross and resurrection all happens so that we may find our longings transformed and fulfilled in the community of friends called the church. Our sacramental life, our prayer, our companionship, our compassion, all point to the fulfilling of our deep longing and God’s desire for us.

Which is why in today’s Gospel John the Baptist does not point us to a perfect place, but to "The Way." The Gospel of Mark is “the Gospel of The Way.” And The Way leads to the cross and to resurrection. In the Gospel of Mark, John proclaims, Jesus leads us, and the disciples follow.

Walking the way is how we meet our deep longings every day. Walking the way means continually making room in our lives for the God who chooses to make us companions.

What I love about today’s passages is that on the one hand—in Isaiah—God is the one making the paths straight and the valleys low. On the other hand, in the Gospel of Mark, it is we who are to do the work of clearing the path, filling the valleys, to make room in our lives for God. Think of two crews building the same bridge, but one is one bank and the other crew is on the opposite side and they work their way towards each other. And somewhere in the middle, they meet. And people can cross from one side to the other.

As we in Advent, not unlike the inn keeper in another Gospel, create space in our calendars, at our tables, and in our lives (privately and publicly) for God, know that in Jesus God has made space for us!

It is a wilderness out there! It is our wilderness. We live in the wilds of consumer goods, complex lives, poverty, injustice, and, above all, longing. It is a wilderness and the voice is crying out beyond all the noise and the media and all the news. It is a voice that proclaims, "Stop! Listen! Make room for God! Clear away the obstacles!" The God who longs for us is coming to meet us who long for God.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

So, what's the rush?

We’ve all done it. It is a trait we all share on one level or another. We’ve all found ourselves shifting our weight from one foot to another, folding and unfolding our arms repeatedly checking our watches or phones, sighing deeply and asking ourselves inwardly (or even out loud) “what’s taking so long?” We may teach our children and even our puppies “to wait for it.” But we can’t wait! We peek to see what’s under the gift paper as the presents sit beneath the tree, we peer into the simmering pot before it's ready, we push ourselves to lift that too-heavy box instead of using good body mechanics or asking for help. And why?

Because we can’t wait. We are impatient.

So, what's the rush?

Advent is said to be the season of waiting. But because it is also the season of our society’s Great Winter Festival—you know, from the Macy’s Parade to the Super Bowl—waiting is not an option. We want what we want when we want it. God help us!

This past weekend, I read a post from a mother who put on her Facebook page a picture of the wreck of dirty dishes after Thanksgiving dinner: “eight hours to prepare, twenty minutes to consume, an hour to clean up,” she wrote. 

But if you think she has it bad, look at the farmer that gave us our feast: the one who prepared the ground in the spring, planted the seeds, watered and tended the plants, dealt with bugs, critters, and weather, and then harvested the crop and brought it to market. The farmer teaches us that waiting takes patience—which is not the same thing as twiddling one’s thumbs, but it is the wise use of time, hard work, and resources.

So, what is the rush anyway? Why are we so impatient so much of the time? 

What makes us rush to control and manage things just so we can get what we want-- in our relationships? In our work? In our churches? 

I believe that the rush comes when our deep inner longing meets our deep-seated inability to allow things to unfold.

The culture doesn’t help us one bit in this department! Everything is designed around getting us to want something and then get it as soon as possible. We’ve become so impatient that we can’t even go to the store anymore: we insist that it come to us! We buy our gadgets (and our groceries!) from Amazon in exactly the same way that the Coyote bought his rocket sneakers and bat wings from Acme.

Which brings us to Advent. As waiting seasons go, Advent is really not all that long. Four Sundays…that’s it! And often the season is not even a full four weeks, especially if Christmas lands on a Monday or Tuesday. But we light the candles, measuring either how long we’ve waited or how far we have to go before we can sing Christmas carols.

And you want to know what the really silly part is? After waiting those four Sunday, we rip through Christmas like a whirlwind and move right on to the January sales and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. This year, the Christmas season covers two Sundays before we get to the Epiphany and the Magi. Already I can hear the sighing on that Second Sunday of Christmas, January 3rd… because two days after New Year’s some well meaning person will say to me, “are we still doing Christmas…?”

Impatience is at the heart of the human condition. Just look at the classic seven deadly sins: they all have in common the impatient desire to give in to our impulses now. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

According to the standard list, the big seven sins are pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Pride, in this construct, is not healthy self-esteem or self-worth but what happens when we place ourselves above others, when we overestimate our importance; greed—getting what one wants at any cost; wrath—uncontrolled rage against life’s limits or against another’s dignity; envy—resentment over another’s good fortune; lust—sexual (or other) satiation without vulnerability or relationship; gluttony—devouring and hoarding everything one wants (not just food!); and sloth, which is not mere laziness but living in expectation that that one will receive benefits without any effort at all. Sometimes sloth is called “acedia” which the habitual absence of interest or deep resistance to do one’s own emotional work—the temptation to give up altogether. Personally, I’d like to add impatience as the eighth deadly sin, but I don’t need to-- because all of these classical sins share in one way or another the trait of impatience.

Mahatma Ghandi put it well when wrote about the seven blunders of the world that lead to violence; which, again, share the trait of impatience: 1) Wealth without work; 2) Pleasure without conscience; 3) Knowledge without character; 4) Commerce without morality; 5) Science without humanity; 6) Worship without sacrifice; and 7) Politics without principle. 

Both these lists tell us that there are no short cuts to virtue; and even our deep yearning for justice, and our longing for the coming of God’s reign require waiting, and, yes, patience.

Now, to be clear here, I am not saying that patience is the same as acquiescence. Patience is not the spiritual act of kicking the can down the road or assuming that someone else will do what we don’t want to do. “Patience” is not a synonym for “fear.” Actual patience requires trust, knowledge, effort, humility, and relationship. It requires a calm heart, clear thinking, and a non-anxious stance. Early in my ministry, when I worked with recovering addicts in a residential facility, the hardest lesson in recovery was for the residents to learn patience and with it the managing of one’s impulses.

“Yes, but…!” I hear you cry, “but what about justice?” Isn’t God impatient for justice? I sometimes hear preachers compare the sleeping disciples in today’s gospels to the church, asleep at the switch when it comes to justice. Jesus tells them to “wake up! Stay alert!” Why must we put up with oppressive and unjust systems for any longer than we must? 

To which I reply, who says that patience is “giving in?”

True, there are folks who disguise their discomfort and fear of change behind an argument for patience; just as many mainline clergy (including some then-prominent Episcopalians!) told the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King to “be patient” as he sat in a Birmingham jail, or who tried to stall the full inclusion of women into the Church’s ordained ministry asking for more patience. Personally, my tendency is to agree with Mother Jones, who organized coal miners in 19th century eastern Pennsylvania, when she said “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” On my wall hangs a saying, a kind of prayer, given to me at my ordination. It’s a quote by Elizabeth Cady Stanton who said, “Please don’t let me grow conservative with age.” 

At the same time, while we need to be wary of confusing patience with acedia, we must also be careful to not let one’s impatience doesn’t grow into pridefulness. Remember, how Rosa Parks changed the world with her focused, targeted patience?

So, what is the rush?

In Advent, we repent from our impatience while we wait for God's salvation history to unfold.

We acknowledge our sin that we often assume that we know better than anyone… even God… about how to get things done for God. Look at the Christmas narrative and see the lengths people go to snuff out the Incarnation. In the Passion narrative we see what happens when the impatience of the religious authorities caused them to try to stamp out Jesus’ ministry, and what Judas’ impatience to rush along the coming of the Kingdom does to him—even how his impulsive impatience made him unable to accept forgiveness! The Gospels, and especially the Passion, show us in stark detail the heart of human sin, which includes our inability to wait.

For me, the heart of Advent waiting is being present. Living in the here and now, with a stance that learns from and appreciates the past (all of it… the successes and the tragedies, the sins and the acts of redemption) and looks to the future of with hope (you know, "faith that looks forward"). Advent reminds us of the saying that John Lennon repeated, that life happens while we’re busy making other plans.

It takes faith to allow things to unfold in their time. We so often want to reduce God’s time (Kairos) to our timetable (Chronos). But, like an experienced cook, it takes a mature faith to cooperate with that process, giving it energy where it’s needed and time to simmer when that’s what’s called for. You need the skill and the know-how to prepare the ingredients, the trust and the knowledge to let the cake bake or food cook, and the confidence—the faithful activity—to do the right thing, at the right time, in the right way to get the right result.

As we long for God’s promised future—as we yearn for the establishment of God’s justice, God’s redemption, and for the maturity of faith which comes from grace and for faithful community that comes through the action of the Holy Spirit—allow this Advent time to teach us how to cooperate with God in the unfolding of God’s reign, to do the work God has given us to do, and to teach us the virtues and tools we need to bring Christ’s healing to our broken, confused, and impatient world.