Saturday, June 03, 2023

Our Mysterious, Complex, Relational, Knowable God

I have a question for you. As we contemplate and celebrate the Feast of the Trinity, and as we enter into the “everyday,” “workaday,” and, yes, the “summer vacation” part of the Church’s year, I have a question for you. It’s simple. And not so simple. You ready? Here it is:

What is your way in to God? What opens the door to the divine for you? What introduces you to Jesus and readies your heart for the Holy Spirit?

Is it the vastness and wonder of God’s creation? Is it the sense of meaning and redemption that you have found in your relationship with God in Christ? Maybe you were a person who has suffered addictions, or abuse, or stuck in a cycle of really bad choices and have found healing and wholeness when you came to faith. Perhaps there was a time when you sought meaning, hope, or direction, and it came to you in an encounter with God. Maybe the door opened for you when you came to sobriety, to health.... or just to your senses!

Some people don’t really know… I get that!... but they know… something is drawing them in. I have found a surprisingly useful tool that can help all of us explore and go deeper into our spiritual journey and discover how wonderfully close the fullness, vastness, wonder, and love of the One God is to every single one of us.

It’s music. I love the visual arts, too, especially painting and iconography, but on this Trinity Sunday, I want to invite you to go deeper into this wonderful theological textbook and book of poetry that is our Hymnal. In doing that, I’d like you think about how it is that you meet God… because however that happens, I’ll bet that there is hymn for you!

The Trinity, the Christian doctrine that we contemplate and celebrate today, says that the oneness of God is expressed in a trinity of persons and a unity of being. The One God is manifested in a Trinity of persons. This is much more than metaphor, and we must avoid the temptation to reducing our language of God to mere "base three" thinking.

The Trinity tells us several things about the very nature of God. Not only do we know the One God as a unity of persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Trinity also tells us that: 

  1. God is complex to the point unknowing;
  2. God is relational; and,
  3. Because of that, through God's grace and action, God is knowable.

So, among other things, the Trinity also tells us that God offers us a variety of ways “in” to our relationship with God:

  •        We can contemplate the majesty and wonder of the God of All Creation in God the Father.
  •        We can enter in to intimate, healing relationship in Jesus, God the Son.
  •        We can enter in to the mystic power and mysterious movement of God in God the Holy Spirit.

These "ways in" should not be confused with the "roles" or "functions" of each person of the Trinity. While God want us to know Him, and know we have to take small spiritual bites on the way to knowing God, we have to be careful not to slice and dice the One God!

Of course, God is bigger than the universe, and our brains can only fit into a baseball cap; so yeah, the best we can do is use analogies to describe the fullness of God. This is a start, but it can get us into trouble.

Remember that each person of the Trinity all contain the entire fullness of the One God! And before you reach for the aspirin, remember that the Trinity shows us that God is complex, mysterious, and knowable all at the same time! What we need is holy imagination, grounded in prayer, scripture, the creeds, tradition, and in the worship of the church.

Think of the ways that God has led you into a deeper knowledge of God, I think that you will find that it depends on your learning style and way of looking at the world.

One of my favorite films is the 1997 movie “Cosmos,” where Jodie Foster plays a scientist…and religious skeptic…who is sent on a mission into an artificial wormhole built on the basis of instructions received via a radio transmission from the star Vega. As she travels she witnesses a magnificent celestial event, the birth of a star or and on seeing the light show she sobs and exclaims that she “... no words, no words... to describe it. Poetry! They should've sent a poet. So beautiful! I had no idea.”

Back in 2012, famed atheist Richard Dawkins debated the Rt. Honorable Rowan Williams, who had just wrapped his term at Archbishop of Canterbury, and described in nearly poetic terms the vastness and complexity of the cosmos asking why one would want to “clutter” up the beauty of science with religion. But as he spoke, Archbishop Williams just nodded, closing his eyes as if he was imagining the scene for himself. In response, Williams pointed Williams did not see God as mental clutter. “Let’s call him a combination of love and mathematics,” he said.

“The writers of the Bible,” Williams noted, “were not inspired to do 21st century physics. They were inspired to pass on to their readers what God wanted them to know.”

And that’s why we find ourselves expressing our encounter with God in poetry, art, and music, and why we often turn to the language of mystics and spiritual directors like St. Julian of Norwich, and even writers like Tolkien, Charles Williams, or Dorothy Sayers or Jan Karon, who in various ways explore their encounters with God in poetry and fiction.

And that brings us to the job that we’ve been given. Go and tell. Make disciples. Baptize and teach.

God speaks to us in the way that meets us exactly at the point of our greatest need. In Matthew’s last chapter we see people who go and tell about the risen Christ. Some people see the Risen Christ and don’t know what they’ve seen, like the soldiers who observed the risen Christ from afar, but since they have not met him, there is no relationship. It is at best only an interesting phenomenon, or a story but nothing more. Without that connection, there is no belief and there is no change.

But for those who enter into a relationship with God in Christ, who dare to go deeper, everything changes. The two Marys who met the risen Jesus in the garden. The eleven and the rest of the imperfect church who met the Risen Christ on the mountain. We meet him here in Christian community and in the sacramental life. The fullness of God being made known in Jesus tells us that Godself is best known in relationship. And from there, we meet God in the people God gives us.

So here is both Good News and a challenge: We who worship, and we who are still trying to understand are also all sent! The challenge is not to be distracted by what we don’t know but to dare to enter into relationship with God in the everyday. The fullness of God is made known in the Holy Spirit in the person of Jesus, who give us the power to change so that every day we can become more and more God’s people.

And every day, we go and tell. We can choose to be intentional about our message or we can just leave it up to the first impression. What will we say? How will we live. There is a saying out there, sometimes attributed (without evidence) to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel. When necessary use words.”

We have seen the fullness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit made known to us where we live and work and play. In Christ we know our savior and friend, our companion and teacher, our sovereign and our rest. We will tell that we have met the risen Jesus in our daily living and that God is changing us.

So, fellow friends and apprentices of Jesus, we are blessed, truly blessed, when we live Good News, and we tell what we have seen and heard. And remember, we are never, ever alone. 

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for Trinity Sunday, June 4, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on June 4, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on June 4, 2023.

Saturday, May 27, 2023

From Fragility to Power

It is very tempting to domesticate Pentecost. In fact, people have been trying to do this for at least two millennia. We like to boil down God to our size, so that the vastness and glory of God can fit comfortably inside something approximately the size of a baseball cap.

But God is not so easily domesticated.

Today, in our lesson from Acts, we heard diverse languages being read together at once from all over the church… it sounded to us chaotic, incomprehensible, confused. And yet… it the middle of all that, there was something there for all of us. If you listen closely, there was the Holy Spirit, speaking your language.

This is the sound of Good News. It is the language of purpose and of power. But like so much in God’s economy, we misunderstand what it meant by power. God’s power is not to rule, but to become the people God made us to be.

But even that language can get us into trouble. So often we want to reduce Pentecost to nothing more than a kind of spiritual self-help. Yes, the Holy Spirit transforms us and changes our living and our way of being—ask any addicted person who is successfully working their recovery—but it is much more than simple self-improvement.

God’s gifts are available to everyone! The whole point of God’s salvation project is to reunite humanity and creation with God. But all too often, we want to restrict Pentecost to a special few.

And way, way, too often, we limit Pentecost to the very holy, or the people we think are worthy enough or religious enough to deserve the gift. In fact God’s power falls on those we least expect and often at the very fringes of comfortable society.

In the Book of Acts, Luke describes the Holy Spirit as coming like wind and descending like tongues of flame. It is like the wind that moved over the void before creation shouted into existence like a big bang. It is like the fire of the sun that radiates out and gives life to our world.

We think of life as a fragile thing, and it very often is, and as the Holy Spirit moves over creation and over us in the Church, we find our very fragility can be the key to our deepest strength.

I believe that just as the church moves in oscillation from rest to action, the church also moves in rhythm from reformation to institutionalizing, from charisma to order. I also believe that the Holy Spirit lives precisely on the fulcrum, in the tension, in the LaGrange point, between those poles. And, right now, we are in the middle of such a transforming period. It is not comfortable nor is it new. In every generation of the Church is called to re-claim that power and transforming grace for their own time. 500 years ago, Martin Luther himself said that if we don’t do this, then we can’t be called "the Church."

So what does that mean? It means that we baptized Christians, we who are marked as Christ’s own forever, and sealed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, are being called to move from fragility to power!

God is calling us to speak clearly the transforming power of Christ and the love of God for all people in all situations, whatever their race, gender, class, or whom they love. God's love, grace, and power is for anyone who seeks purpose, hope, healing and strength. 

It is not, and has never been, easy. We live in an age when politicians, pundits, and preachers, are advocating the limiting of books, films, and don’t want classrooms or even college students to talk about racism, injustice, gender, or our complicated history as a nation. We live in a time when ambitious officials do battle with amusement parks and other straw men in order to score points with their “base” (whatever that means!), and who use language of fear, rage, and images of a fantasy past to whip up their support. Here's the thing: if we limit the rights of others to discuss these things, then how long will it be before someone comes and limits our right to gather as we do here today, or who will tell how and when to do it?

It is exactly at moments like this when caring for the environment, seeking racial reconciliation, caring for the poor and outcast, and acknowledging both the accomplishments and the injustices of our past is both an honorable and holy thing.

And this reminds us that the Holy Spirit cannot be domesticated! The Holy Spirit cannot be locked in a strong box but instead breaks down barriers and hands out the power of God to all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

And you know what? This scares some folks! It scares people who are ashamed of their pasts. It is frightened people who hurl epithets like ‘woke’ around like insults. Why? Because they want to shut off conversation and make people as afraid as they are! This is not the work of faith; it is the work of fear! And fear (and the rage that grows out of fear) would have us domesticate Pentecost into mere entertainment and the Holy Spirit into a balm.

This is not new. We’ve been here before. Sixty years ago, in 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote to mainly white, mainline clergy (like me) a Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He said, “Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being 'disturbers of the peace' and 'outside agitators.' But they went on with the conviction that they were a 'colony of heaven' and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be 'astronomically intimidated.' They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and [the] gladiatorial contest.”

Alas, he also said: “Things are different now. The contemporary Church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the Church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the Church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

But just look at how Pentecost changed everything!

It was the Holy Spirit who led Philip to baptize the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26-40), who was at once a slave, a Gentile from a far-away culture, and was by definition a sexual minority.

It was the Holy Spirit who empowered the women who followed Jesus and who also witnessed to his resurrection, like Mary, Martha, Susanna, and Mary Magdalene.

And it was the same Holy Spirit that inspired and empowered the women of the early church like Priscilla, Junia, Lydia, Phoebe, and Dorcas, to support the early church with their hospitality, leadership, and wealth.

I believe it was the Holy Spirit that led the people of South Africa under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and others, to avoid violent revolution and seek transformation from a racially divided to a more racially diverse nation, using tools like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that allowed former oppressors and formerly oppressed people meet each other to tell and hear hard truths.

It took a generation of truth telling, undergirded by the Nuremburg Trials, for the German people to come to terms with the horrors of nationalism, war, and genocide and to turn away from their shameful past in the post-war era.

This is why I believe that telling the truth and learning from the past, however difficult, is the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s why we need dialogue, libraries, and learning and why the Church, at its best, has always supported scholarship and academic freedom.

It’s no wonder that the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost came with the followers of Jesus speaking Good News in every known language (Acts 2:1-21) for all the people to hear, understand, and believe.

When the Holy Spirit arrived, the fears of Jesus’ followers are burned away, and they are given strength, power, and vision to move into places that previously shamed them or frightened them. Rather than reserving power to a select few, God’s Holy Spirit distributed power, hope, generosity, and love to all God’s people, in a way that people from every corner of the known world both heard and understand.

On Pentecost we recall again how “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). The Holy Spirit does not keep us locked up in safe deposit boxes, or preserved like bugs in amber, but reaches into the vulnerable places, the places where Christ walked, and died, and rose again.

The Holy Spirit burns away our fears, and gives us the strength, power, and vision to move into places that previously shamed us or frightened us. Rather than hang on to power, at Pentecost God distributes power, hope, generosity, and love to all God’s people.

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Here are the Scripture Lessons for Pentecost Sunday, May 28, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on May 28, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on May 28, 2023.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Which way is "up?"

There is an old story that comes from the heady days of the space race between the USA and the former Soviet Union sixty years ago. The story goes that when Yuri Gagarin, the first person to fly in space and orbit the earth, made his voyage in 1961, that he looked out the window and observed that he did not see God.

It gets weirder. 

It turns out that Gagarin never said anything one way or the other about seeing God out the window of Vostok-1! But we do know this: in the days before his rocket lifted off from Star City on the Wednesday after Orthodox Easter, Gagarin took his daughter, Yelena, to be baptized.

The only record of the infamous comment in fact comes from a speech by Nikita Khrushchev in the month or two after the flight. And he didn’t quote Gagarin but rather, in an attempt to mock religion, said what Gagarin didn’t see. The Western press, perhaps spotting an opportunity for propaganda (or else not being able to understand Russian) immediately attributed the words to Gagarin. 

I wonder if this comment, and the minor media and geo-political flap that arose from it, didn’t inspire a 1963 film Heavens Above!, where Peter Sellers plays a naïve but well-meaning vicar accidently appointed to a snobbish parish but who did exactly what Jesus taught: he gave away food, sold all his (and his parish’s) possessions, and welcomed the poor into his church, becoming such an annoyance that he is shot into space as the new Bishop of Outer Space, orbiting the earth reading the psalms over the radio from his space capsule. 

The misquote attributed to Gagarin was definitively answered by three American astronauts, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman as they orbited the moon in Apollo 8 seven years later on Christmas Eve, 1968. The three astronauts took turns reading Genesis 1:1-10, the creation story, on the same flight that gave us the iconic image of the earth rising over the horizon of the moon.

The geography of holiness is a tricky and dangerous thing!

The Feast of the Ascension, which comes forty days after Easter, describes and celebrates the return of the living, crucified, and resurrected Jesus to heaven. Many people, especially today when we can peer into deep space at other galaxies, get hung up on what is meant by “up.”

What is described in both the Book of Acts and in the Gospel of Luke is not a mere disapparation. Jesus doesn’t just disappear into the ether, but instead physically rises up into the sky, leaving the disciples staring into the heavens, mouths agape, until an angel comes and tells them to “snap out of it!” and come back to earth.

As sophisticated as we are, no matter how many airline flights we take, and no matter how many space shots we’ve witnessed, we still tend to think of heaven as “up” and hell as “down”, with us living somewhere in the middle. But as interesting as this cosmological hot-hero sandwich might be, the real significance of the Ascension is not geography but relationship!

If you turn to the catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, you will discover that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (p. 854)

In both the Gospel of Luke and in the Book of Acts, before he returns to heaven, Jesus tells his friends and apprentices to say put, and await the gift that God will send them.

He also teaches them one last time how everything they have seen and heard fits together as God intended. We discover that the disciples were not powerless nor afraid but spent their time together in what must have seemed like a transformed community: they prayed and sang and worshipped. They were not hiding but lived out in the open going between their home(s) and the Temple through the streets of Jerusalem!

What changed was the geography of holiness. Their place, their city, once a place of foreboding and death, is now a place of wonder and worship. They saw the world and their place in it with new eyes, and this even before the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, would arrive in another ten days!

You see, the Ascension didn’t just take Jesus back into heaven, into God’s realm in the cosmos, the Ascension revealed how the friends and apprentices of Jesus were now themselves drawn living in a new relationship with God and each other through Christ. They were changed. Their relationships with each other and even, in their eagerness, with the world was transformed.

The Ascension shows us the sneakiness of God. Its importance is exactly backwards from what we expect. We think it is about going “up,” when in fact it is God coming “down,” tuning our hearts and our senses towards Christ! The Ascension is daily living the prayer we pray every day: that God’s work is being done on earth—all around us! —just as it is in heaven!

So which way is “up?”

The Ascension shows us that as we are drawn to Christ, to each other, and to the world, we are being drawn to God. That way is “up!”

In God’s strange incarnational economy, Christ draws us towards heaven while at the same time showing us the only place we can really find that God is right here-- where we live, work, study, and play. The Ascension shows us that God’s power and healing is not reserved for the someday but is ready for us now. The Ascension demonstrates that in all of our everyday living, the Risen and Ascended Christ continues to be present.

The Ascension reminds us, as Orthodox bishop Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said, “that the realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it.” Look at what happens in Luke and Acts. Jesus draws to heaven and invites us to work in The City—in the places and in the relationships where God has placed you. And the only place where we can receive “power from on high” is in “the city,” where we his people live, pray, work, and worship.

When we do heavenly worship, with glorious music, we usually think that we are drawing ourselves towards heaven—and we are—but we are also witnessing to the reality that God is all the time bringing heaven to earth. I told you… God is sneaky that way.

This is the geography of the holy. As God’s people, the more we are drawn to heaven the more we live in service to the world; the more we are drawn to that ascended vision, the more we are invited to stay in the city. In the geography of the holy, we don’t need to go elsewhere to find God because the place where we find the power of God is right here all along!

It is said by some who knew him, that Yuri Gagarin carried in his pocket a small icon, right up until he died in a plane crash in 1968. I don’t know. But I do know this: we here in this city, in this place, in our witness, worship, and in our holy work, we baptized people are icons of the holy. What God is doing on earth with us now is what happens in heaven, just as Jesus said when he taught us to pray.

In the Ascension, we are invited to at once look up and see heaven and go out into the city and so inhabit the geography of the holy.

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Bulletin for Worship for the Seventh Sunday of Easter-- Sunday After the Ascension , May 21, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Here are the Scripture Lessons for 7 Easter A- Sunday after the Ascension, May 21, 2023.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on May 21, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on May 21, 2023.

Sunday, May 07, 2023

Seeing the world through God’s eyes

Jesus said, “the one who believes in me will do the works I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these…” (John 14:12) Do you believe that?

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time believing that some days. Actually, truth be told, I have a hard time believing that most days. I mean—when was the last time I raised the dead or cured a sick person? How about you? What did Jesus mean by that?

There are Christians who take what Jesus says quite literally—when people hear that once upon a time I served in the Diocese of West Virginia, someone might ask me if I ever met a snake-handler. Well, we in the western slopes and river valleys where I lived did not have those groups, who are generally still found in small pockets in the southern coal regions. But, you know what, that mentality is not far from us, even in our sophisticated, tech-savvy days.  There are people who think that the way to emulate Jesus’ power is by trying hard to recreate his miracles. We are many times easily disappointed when things don’t go our way even though we think we are doing everything ‘right.’ And secular scoffers tell us all the time that if we can’t do the miracles that Jesus did, then Jesus is in fact dead, and we are fools.

Well, we are people of faith, not people of magic. And there is more than one way to live out Jesus’ power today. It’s just that we forget that sometimes. We, in fact, live out and surpass Jesus’ works all the time—and don’t even notice.

Allow me to explain.

John’s Gospel this morning puts together Jesus’ words in a series of teachings at the Last Supper. Remember that the Gospel is not a verbatim transcript but is written to Christians sometime after the resurrection of Jesus, in this case sixty to seventy-five years after that. It’s been long enough to see that the Church is in it for the long haul.

Add to that two challenges that continue to this day: First, the Christian Church is a persecuted church that stands outside of the mainstream of the culture, and the Church is a divided Church. Divided between those who seek quick, simplistic, solutions and those who want to reach out into the world in Jesus’ name.

The Gospel is written for us. It is to us and Christians like us that John recalls for us Jesus’ promise that we will do even greater works than even Jesus did himself.

We Christians have a hard time believing that. We feel helpless, we feel lost, we feel ourselves reacting to the world we live in rather than responding to it. Despite the Gallup polls which suggest high levels of religious belief, most of us are at best functional agnostics. Most Americans see our faith as a lifestyle choice in a supermarket of ideas—rather than the way God engages us and changes us in our daily lives. Many people act as if religion is a kind of magic for which we simply lack the right incantations.

The life of faith is a choice—a choice to look at the world through God’s eyes. The choice to listen for God at work in the great and small way that God still speaks to us. And to see that God is working through us and in creation in astounding ways.

Do you believe that we in fact do great things just as Jesus said? Look at what Jesus did and what we do: Jesus taught; we teach. He healed; we heal. He fed; we feed. He transformed; we are being transformed. He challenged; we challenge. He reached out to people beyond his own cultural, ethnic, and religious circle; we reach out to people beyond our own circle living lives often much different than we do. He made faith real to people who were lost; we make faith real to people who are lost.

Every week, we witness a miracle—if we choose to look. Every week we feed hungry people and that, to them, is just as amazing as if we took two fishes and five barely loaves and fed a multitude. In our case, it’s sometimes cans of tomato sauce and lots of pasta.

Every week, we witness a miracle—if we choose to look. Addicted people walk into our building and support each other reach and maintain their sobriety and look to their Higher Power in the process.

Every week, we witness a miracle—if we choose to look. As parents in all kinds of situations—young, old, single, paired, married or not, learn how to raise their children with health, safety, and love.

Every week, in great and small ways, there are people who give themselves to prayer, service, who visit the sick and care for the homebound, who care for the environment, work for justice, who study and listen for God and support each other as they transcend life’s everyday challenges and discover the transforming love of God.

Are you an ethical and just employer? You’re doing a great thing! Do you do your work with integrity and faith? You are doing great thing! Do you make the hard choices to raise your children well? You are doing great thing! Do you give your time to improve the lives of someone, a student, a neighbor, a person in trouble? You are doing a great thing. Do you care for your neighbor, or your sick friend, or give of your substance to forward God’s kingdom? You are doing a great thing. Certainly, by themselves they seem small. Insignificant. But taken together all these things are a mighty force for good that transforms creation, that shows that Christ is alive and well and living amongst us every day.

The temptation is to sit on our thumbs until Jesus returns. The challenge is to trust God enough to put aside the distractions so that what we all do together daily, in great and small ways, demonstrates the transforming power of God in the everyday lives of people like us.

In the Gospel today, Jesus is telling us that we are the living sign of Jesus’ right here, right now. If people want to know what Jesus is up to—look at all of us Christians living his love, experiencing God’s power, and reaching out to the world every day.

Here is the promise: that we who trust in Jesus as our Lord and Savior will do greater things than even he did. Here is the challenge: do we believe it? 

Sunday, April 30, 2023

It's All About the Shepherd

My mother used to tell me that it was one thing to be ignorant, just don’t open your mouth and prove it. Well, today, all over the Christian world, preachers like me will open their mouths will prove, in great detail and with great authority, that they know nothing about sheep! Myself included.

The truth is that everything I know about sheep and shepherding I’ve learned from old Warner Brothers cartoons involving Ralph Coyote (not to be confused with Wile E.) and Sam Sheepdog who both punch in to work on a time clock before a day of mayhem.

The funny thing is that we preachers who get so distracted by the nature of sheep and their behavior forget that the passages that show up every Fourth Sunday of Easter—traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday—are never about the sheep. They are always about the shepherd!

It’s a classic case of not seeing the forest for the trees, or the not seeing the sheep for the flock…. Oops! There I go again!

It’s all about the shepherd!

Jesus describes himself as the shepherd. The good shepherd. Who is very different than all those bad shepherds, not to mention the thieves and wolves and others who are bad for sheep gatherings.

Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the good shepherd can come and go through the sheepfold. What’s a sheepfold? Okay, I had to look this up. It’s a kind of pen, or corral, used to gather up the sheep at night. And the sheepfold is guarded by a gatekeeper who checks to be sure that only shepherds enter the gate. And I guess in those days, sheep only heard and responded to the voices of their own shepherd, so instead of branding them they’d…. Oops. Sorry. My bad! I forgot. Old habits, you know.

It’s all about the shepherd!

It does not help that not only have modern, urban, preachers been misunderstanding sheep and shepherding, there is also a tendency to make the passage into an allegory that neither Jesus nor the Gospel of John intended.

So the sheepfold in this passage represents… wait for it… a place to keep sheep at night. That’s right. It is not heaven and it’s not really the church. This passage is not about those who try to get into heaven by dodging the turnstiles or entering the theater without a ticket. If it were, he’d be talking about sheep sneaking in over the gate after curfew.

And no, this passage is not about heaven, who’s in and who’s out.

It is about the Church. Specifically about the nature of Christian community. This passage is a riff on Christian leadership and a warning to Christian followers to choose wise leaders.

So the Church is the place where the sheep go for protection and safety. And it’s all about the shepherd.

John’s Gospel teaches us that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. And that we need to be wary of all the things that can distract us, take us away from the church and the life of faith, and cause us to follow the wrong voice. Most of all, the Gospel warns us that some people will pretend to be doing good when in fact they are really looking out only for themselves.

Fortunately, this is only a first century problem, right?  I mean, there is no one out there today competing for our attention, right? There’s no one out there who wants to sway us into doing something harmful, right? There’s no one out there using the language of our faith to trick us into prejudice, fear, and tribalism, right? No! Not in our modern, enlightened 21st Century world!


But let’s not just focus on the obvious. The typical American is confronted by over 5000 advertising exposures. Every. Single. Day. From the car logo on your steering wheel to the brand name on your jeans to the ad on tv or on the back of the bus…we are exposed to over 5000 advertising messages a day. And what’s their goal? To make you feel that the only way your heart will be satisfied will be to open your wallet and buy this or that gadget, thingee, or food item.

Anybody raising a kid these days knows that they will know the different fast-food logos are and what they are for long before they can even read…before they can even form sentences. 

In our world, the bad shepherds may not be climbing over the fence, but they have surrounded the sheepfold with billboards and flat screen televisions.  We live in a world of loud, persistent voices vying for our attention… trying to take us away from the main thing. What do we do?

Remember…it’s all about the Shepherd.

The Gospel today reminds a few things about who Jesus is and about what good Christian communities do to stay together.

First of all, Jesus teaches with authority. In the church we hold out a balance of scripture, tradition, and reason as the basis for what we teach and believe as a community. The Good Shepherd…and good Christian leaders…use their authority for the good of the community, based on what the church has learned and known over time and in community.

The image of the Church we hear in the book of Acts today reminds us of the real, practical ways in which from the very beginning, Christians gathered into communities to hear again the voice of the Shepherd and to care for each other.

Second, the Good Shepherd knows us and meets us where we are. The Shepherd guides us as we move around in the proverbial pasture that is the world. Do you experience too many voices, too many distractions in your daily lives? Jesus says that instead of bouncing from one thing to another, go to the place where the Good Shepherd is found. Go to the place where the community of the faithful is gathered. In that community you’ll find the Shepherd…Jesus… who leads us and cares for us wherever we go.

It is the sacramental life, lived in community…a life grounded in scripture, in Eucharistic sharing, in prayer—both alone and in groups, as well as in worship-- is all about the Shepherd. Focusing on Jesus the Good Shepherd will help us sort through all the competing voices in the world.  And together here, in our little sheepfold, is where we learn to know Jesus’ voice and follow him. This is where we learn and do the work of Jesus.

The world is a noisy place, full of distractions. As a people of God, we are not alone, but are a community of people gathered in Jesus’ name. We are a people who are “on the way.” And together we keep an eye out for the Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who knows us, cares for us and leads through our complicated and distracted world and brings us safely home.

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Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on April 30, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on April 30, 2023.

Saturday, April 08, 2023

Easter Lilies in the Morgue

Allow me to tell you a different kind of Easter story.

A long time ago in a hospital far, far away, I was a chaplain where the Sisters who ran it were very intentional about communicating their Catholic mission and identity. Which meant, among other things, that my colleagues in the pastoral care department did many activities during Lent.  And it was the job of the On-Call Chaplain over Easter weekend to come in on the evening of Holy Saturday to lead in the transformation of the hospital lobby, other public spaces, and chapel from the austerity of Lent and Holy Week to the festivity of Easter.

The first time I had to do this, I came back to the hospital very late Saturday night after attending a local parish’s Easter Vigil. The job included putting up the white hangings in the Chapel, changing the veils on various crosses around the building to white (and there were a lot!), and putting out Easter lilies and tulips in the main lobby, the chapel. and some other places. The meant that we ordered lots and lots …and lots!... of flowers!

I commandeered a handcart and, along with other chaplains and some volunteers, we started my rounds.

Only a day or so before, we Chaplains along with many folks from the hospital community had walked these very same halls in a special way. We did The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Instead of being in a chapel, these Stations were scattered throughout the building—we went to places where people met suffering, pain, hope, fear, loneliness, death and new life. These stations were in the places where people ministered to human frailty sometimes with awesome technology and just as often with compassion and simple touch. These were the places where divine healing met human need in everyday ways so often that, if you weren’t careful, they would became mundane.

These were the places Jesus walked. The cross stands at the intersection of brokenness and hope. And just two days ago, on Good Friday, we walked with Jesus to places where suffering and compassion could not be plainer. We planted a plain, rude wooden cross in our midst and, in venerating that cross, we confronted all the ways we separate ourselves from God, each other, and creation.

Anyway, back at that hospital all those years ago, when it came time to get those Easter flowers, they were gone! When I went to the loading dock, they were not there! Where’d they go?  After much searching, I called security.

The guard was expecting my call. He said, “I’ll show you.”

We met and took the elevator to the basement, to a dark hall in the oldest wing of the hospital, a hallway that few people walked. We came to an unmarked door. The guard sorted through his wad of keys and opened the door and entered the morgue.

Just before he turned the knob, he said to me “Don’t worry, Chaplain, there had been a body in here tonight, but now it’s gone.”

He was right. When he opened the door, there was no dead body. But there was an explosion of flowers! Everywhere there were lilies, daisies, tulips, and spring flowers. They covered the examination table, the counters and overflowed and even the drawers meant to hold bodies, like the ones you see on shows like NCIS, had flowers on them.

A place of sterility was filled with color! The medicinal “laboratory” smell was overcome with the perfume of blooming flowers.  A place of death had become a nursery.

It turns out that the housekeepers had brought the flowers to the morgue because they arrived a day early and they thought they’d keep longer in the coolness of the morgue. “I hope you don’t mind,” the guard said.

So that’s my Easter story, or at least one of them. Easter lilies in the morgue. What’s yours?

Today, we are not here to celebrate an empty tomb, let alone a morgue. Seeing an empty tomb does not bring life. An empty tomb does not change anything. The Easter story centers on women who came expecting to find a body and instead the found an empty tomb, a vision of angels, and encountered in person the real, live Risen Jesus.

All the Gospels agree that Mary of Magdala was among the first to meet the Risen Jesus, which, if you think about it, is a very strange choice as the first messenger of Good News because they say she was once possessed by demons. Not the best of credentials. But she was in very good company. Mary of Magdala fits right in the parade of people that the Gospel of John has shown us all through Lent. People who have met Christ and been changed: such as Nicodemus, the inquisitive but fearful rabbi; or the outcast and troubled woman at the well; or the beggar blind from birth. And then there Lazarus, the dead man who was brought back to life!

All these people encountered Jesus at the point of their deepest need… and they were changed!

Mary came to the tomb to grieve, and to care for the dead body of her friend, teacher and healer.

Mostly she came to weep. Weep tears of inconsolable grief. She weeps her losses. She weeps for what she was given and now has lost. And now she finds that the tomb is open, and the body is gone.

On seeing this, Mary runs to the disciples, and Peter and the Beloved Disciple race each other back to the tomb. They find it just as she said—empty, vacant. Bandages on one side, and the face-cloth neatly folded on the other side. But that is all. The two disciples leave, perplexed. Mary stays behind at the empty tomb, weeping even more.

Certainly they know something is up…something is going on…but this does not change anything. Not yet.

It is Jesus who comes to her and ministers to her, only she doesn’t recognize him. She supposes him to be a groundskeeper who might know something. She is looking for her friend. It is only when he utters her name that she understands.

“Mary” he says. She knows that voice. She knows that person who reached out and touched her heart and cast away whatever was eating away at her life. Her fear is at once replaced with relief, healing and courage.

Notice her journey this Easter morning. Can you see your journey reflected in hers?

I don’t know about you, but I see so much of my own spiritual journey in Mary’s zig-zag journey to meet the Risen Christ. So often I come to this space, these sacraments, these liturgies and want only to dwell on the empty spaces in my soul; along with my fears, disappointments, and sense of endless busy-ness. I expect, I demand, that they be filled! But too often I try to do that on my terms, in my way.

The way that works for me is that I tell God what I want God to do for me. I tell God how it is. Sure, I may bring my expectations, my pride, and my pain, but I can’t let go of them. Because I really need them to define who I am. So I tell God to either bless them or fix them. And it’s a pretty safe bet that if nothing happens I either blame God or maybe chalk it up as a learning experience. Either way, my fears are reinforced, prejudices stiffen, attitudes harden.

It's like coming to an empty tomb. Or to a morgue filled to the brim with flowers. I may or may not see Christ in all that. It depends on how I look at it.

So let me tell you where I have met the Risen Christ. I have met the Risen Christ in the person of a grown man who spent his whole life in a state institution for the mentally retarded—who taught me that Jesus comes to us like a child, even when they are not. I have met the Risen Jesus in the face of young girl who had brain cancer and literally had half her brain removed, who told me in clear, cheerful words “After the rain comes the rainbow.” I met the Risen Christ in a quiet man, a man who knew how to listen with his whole heart who asked me once what I was running away from and what I really believed.  I have met the Risen Christ in people who have not been intimidated by my anxieties and busy-ness and have prayed for me anyway. Who knows? You, an ordinary person, an ordinary Christian, may be the face of the Risen Christ to someone who needs it and not even know it.

The Risen Jesus is made is known in baptismal waters, broken bread and poured out wine--and in the faces of the people God gives to us. The Risen Jesus is made known by people just like us, who hear him call us each by name, and allows us weep with the joy being known and who helps leave our empty places in an empty tomb. Because he is not there. He is risen!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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Bulletin for Worship for Easter Sunday, April 9, 2023 at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida.

Here is a video of the Sermon at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on April 9, 2023.

Here is a video of the Liturgy at St. John's, Clearwater, Florida on April 9, 2023.

Thursday, April 06, 2023

Going to and from the table and back again

That upper room, that table, is where worlds—universes! — meet!

Think about it. When these people, these followers of Jesus gathered in that upper room, these men and women were living in one kind of world—a world of tradition, under military occupation, living on a thread between poverty and getting by, always knowing one way of being faithful—and later on, in that same room they would encounter the Risen Jesus (twice!), and start the work of spreading Jesus’ message and healing to all the known world and beyond. In between, that same room would be their shelter and hiding place as they sat together in their fear, uncertainty, and grief.

That upper room, that table, will have seen it all.

Of all the settings for this great drama of God’s saving work, this simple room, this ordinary table, are almost forgotten backdrops. But everything happens here!

I actually had not thought about that very much until this week when I read a Lenten meditation written by Diana Butler Bass. After noting what I just said, that they came back to the upper room and that same table, she writes,

They never return to the cross. Jesus never takes them back to the site of the execution. He never gathers his followers at Calvary, never points to the blood-stained hill, and never instructs them to meets him there. He never valorizes the events of Friday. He never mentions them. Yes, wounds remain, but how he got them isn’t mentioned. Instead, almost all the post-resurrection appearances — which are joyful and celebratory and conversational — take place at the upper room table or at other tables and meals.

Table -> trial -> cross -> tomb/tomb -> table.

What if the table is the point?

This changes how I’ve tended to view Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. It’s not just a lesson on servanthood and the particular kind of leadership that Jesus wants his followers to live… and it is that, but more! He is washing their feet because they entering into someplace new. A new way of living and being. A new kind of community. The new reign of God.

But her question is key: what if gathering God people around the table is, in fact, the point? What if the Upper Room isn’t just a convenient meeting room or even a hiding place? What if the Upper Room is in fact the Heavenly Banquet table on earth around which all of God’s people, all of God’s healed creation, gathers together?

And what if instead of a table in an Upper Room, this little table here functions the same way? What if we are in our own little Upper Room from which we disciples come, go, at times hide and other times empowered are sent out?

Those first disciples don’t know it yet, but after they meet the Risen Jesus in this very same room a few days hence, they will go into a whole new world on a whole new mission. For this, they need to be fed—and to feed—and they need to be ready to move, and to serve.

And something else… they need to be open to being served!

I am still new to this community and learning the ways you do stuff, but as I understand it the practice of this parish up until now has been for you to wash each other’s feet. The message was that you all each other’s servants and are also all served by each other, which is in fact a very good message, one that we echo at every Eucharist and also as we pass the peace every week. But listen again to this exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus in the Gospel of John:

[Jesus] got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean….”

Peter would not fully understand what Jesus was up to until after the Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension. We are being ready to walk: walk to the cross, run to the empty tomb, go into all the world. We are going to leave the safety of that upper room, leave the table, and go into God’s world to meet, care for, and welcome all God’s people! For that, we need to walk. And for that Jesus washes his disciple’s feet.

It is important that you we do the vulnerable thing, and allow the one (or ones) in pastoral charge to wash your feet your feet, too. I know. It’s hard. And a little embarrassing. Peter resisted and, still, Jesus insisted. (And don’t worry… I’m not taking names and no one will force anyone else to do what they don’t want to do!)

But, whether come up or if you sit, look around and consider what’s going on.

If you think about it, Earth and Heaven really are meeting up in this Upper Room of ours. We are about to journey from our own Upper Room to the Cross and the Empty Tomb, back to our Upper Room where will meet the Risen Jesus, and from that Upper Room we will again go into the places where God has placed us to communicate Good News and bring healing to the people God has given to us, wherever there is brokenness, pain  to where people look for hope and for healing.

As we come and go from this table tonight, through this Triduum, and every week remember, we who are healed, are called to be healers. We who have been welcomed are being sent to invite. For this, we need to be fed and we need to have our feet washed so that we will be ready to walk.