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Posted on May 21, 2017

Good News for Idolators—sermon for 21 May 2017

Good News for Idolators

May 21, Sixth Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 66:7-18 ;
Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

Sermon by Nicholas Hayes, Seminarian Intern

 

 

At an intersection along a back country Michigan road, about 30 minutes from the town where I grew up, stands a small, ramshackle, faded white church. I’d drive by it a lot growing up, when my parents and I would make our monthly pilgrimage from our 8,000 person town to the “big city” of Ann Arbor. The church was one of the landmarks I’d anticipate seeing along the way.  What made it memorable was the large sign that loomed over it, which looked like it might have been lifted from a truckstop: “Only Jesus saves from the fires of Hell! Repent and believe in Him! ”it proclaimed to those driving by, in large black, block letters.

 

As I grew older, it came to appreciate the absurdity of such a road sign, not least on account of its contrast with the next sign along the road: “Dinosaur Park, next right.” But when I was younger, I would feel a mounting sense of dread every time we would approach it. And even as I began to find it funny, in my teen years, the discomfort never quite went away. By then, I had started to have more personal and direct encounters with the same brand of Christianity that would put a sign like that on the road. To me, that sign became the symbol of what “evangelism” was. “Evangelism” was about hell, and judgment, and the demand to  “believe…or else.” “Evangelism was about fear.

 

Whether it’s a street corner sign, a street corner preacher, or an episode of the 700 club, I’d venture to say a large number of us have experienced that kind of evangelism. That may be why, for many of us Episcopalians, evangelism is so often an uncomfortable subject: the evangelism of fear has made us afraid of evangelism. It’s not something we’re particularly keen to talk about, or do. Even though we’d love to see more people in our churches, our preference is for newcomers to find us, and like us, and decide to stay—rather than for us to go out and find them.  That certainly sometimes works, and it seems a whole lot less problematic than other kinds of evangelism. But on the other hand fewer people seem to be naturally “finding” Church these days. As Bishop Gates suggested in his meeting with our vestry two weeks ago, church communities are no longer something many people seek to belong to by default, in the way they used to. If we want to preserve our communities, we may need to get better at evangelism.

 

But surely filling our pews isn’t the only reason evangelism matters. If we look at the practice of the first Christians, evangelism—actively “sharing the good news of Christ”–was absolutely central to their understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Our selection from the letter of Peter this week features the mandate to give an account of the hope that is in you. And in today’s Acts reading, we see Paul almost literally preaching on a “street corner”—the street corner in this case being the Areopagus, also known as  “Mars Hill,” one of the central public spaces in Athens. Paul’s “Mars Hill” sermon to the Athenians is one of the most famous examples of evangelism in the New Testament. But it represents a very different vision of evangelism, and its importance, than the one held up by that road sign. And it’s a vision that’s still quite relevant today.

 

In sharing the good news with the Athenians, Paul is not concerned so much with hell, nor with unbelief, but with idolatry. Paul’s evangelism is a response to idolatry. Just before this passage, the Scripture tells us that when Paul came to Athens, he was “deeply distressed” by all the idols he saw, and Paul begins his sermon by speaking of the Athenians’ religion.

 

Rather than simply condemning the Athenians’ idolatry, Paul takes it as a sign of a hunger for God, and appeals to that underlying hunger. He interprets the famous Altar to an “Unknown God” on Mars Hill as an expression of the Athenians’ own recognition of something beyond their idols, and suggests that God is already intimately close to them, yet not recognized as such. What Paul does is give that unknown God for which they already long a name, and suggest God is much greater than any of the idols imagined by human imagination. Only then does he testify to the marvelous things that God has done for him and his community in raising Jesus from the dead. This is not an evangelism of fear. In the language of the first letter of Peter, Paul “gives an account of the hope that is in him, with gentleness and reverence.”

 

Now at first, Paul’s approach may seem very far removed from the present. Idolatry in the literal sense isn’t exactly one of our problems; to the contrary, our society seems less religious every day.  But I think Paul means something deeper than mere “statue worship” by idolatry. Idolatry, for Paul, means worshipping in God’s place things that are not worthy of our worship, not only because they are not God, but because they are not even worthy of us, as God’s children.” That is the real significance of the Athenians’ idolatry. And idolatry of that kind is alive and well today. The late novelist David Foster Wallace—an atheist who eventually converted to Christianity—captured its features particularly well in a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College, called “This is Water.” As it’s that time of year, I’d like to share some of it with you:

 

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, Wallace wrote, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing nd the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

St Paul and David Foster Wallace may seem an unlikely pairing. And yet I think they are each on to something profound about us human beings. We are natural idolaters, but our idolatry is also the flip side of something deeply good about us—our insatiable hunger for the infinite, for what we as Christians know as God. Our hunger for God is a product of the Spirit, which works in all of us. But unless that hunger is kept oriented towards its true source, we will seek to feed it by turning to an idol, with which our ego becomes defined—money, beauty, power, knowledge, even a violent image of God (as in the evangelism of fear). And the idol will eat us alive, and drive us to eat each other alive. that’s why it is so important to anchor ourselves as individuals in spiritual practices that call us constantly out of our false selves back to our Source, practices that teach us how to love, how to be free.

We don’t have to be Christian, or religious at all, to recognize how true this picture remains today. Idolatry is alive and well in our culture, and this is no less true of us as Christians than it is of anyone else. The idols are different than they were in Paul’s day, but idols they remain, and some days it feels like they eat us alive. At the same time, at some level, many of us recognize the emptiness of our idols, and their destructive consequences. And nearly all of us hunger for “something more.” People are searching for ways to connect to something greater, to teach them how to love, and how to be free. Many have simply stopped looking to organized religion to do the job. Hence our “spiritual but not religious” moment.

But religion may yet have something to offer to that spiritual hunger. One needn’t be religious to find an anchoring spirituality, but how much more surely we anchor ourselves if we practice in community with others, upon the firm ground of an ancient tradition. We need not believe that our Christian faith tradition is the only path to God to recognize that it is a remarkably rich one. The person of Jesus gives us a model of perfect love to imitate in our lives, and a sign in which to hope, that God’s love is stronger than anything, even than death. The prayers we learn, the table we share every Sunday, the works of service and justice we perform for each other and others are the ways we keep ourselves anchored in God. And the language of our tradition gives us a way to see and to name the ever-present work of grace—of the Spirit–in our lives for what it is, and to try and bring our lives into greater conformity with it. As Christians, our faith tradition, and our faith community, is a gift we can offer to others. Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill offers a model of how we offer it to others. Rather than relying on fear or judgment, we meet others where they are, connect to their spiritual desires, and give an account of the hope that is within us.

So as prepare to celebrate the presence of the Spirit in our midst, on Pentecost, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: Where is the Spirit already at work in the world around us? Beneath the idols of our culture, which we all know too well, where is the Spirit stirring up hunger for God? And how shall we connect to that hunger, and offer our tradition, and our community, as a gift to it? Wow shall we go out into the world, and give an account of the hope that is in us?

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Posted on May 7, 2017

Signs and Wonders—sermon preached by the All Saints City Reach Team

Signs and Wonders

May 7, Fourth Sunday of Easter:

Psalm 23;
Acts 2:42-47; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Sermon by the All Saints City Reach Team. On April 28, 29 a group of youth and adults from All Saints attended City Reach in Boston. This Sunday they were invited to give their reflections on the experience using the reading from Acts as their prompt: “What wonders and signs did you witness among the community gathered at City Reach?”

Last weekend, I along with my fellow preachers here had the privilege of living in community with the people from CityReach. CityReach is an opportunity for young people to learn first hand about homelessness from people who are or have experienced it. We walked through the city at night with individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living without housing, prayed together, ate together, and offered hospitality, food, and clothing to unhoused guests.

Becky:

We arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral Church on a warm Friday evening. Members of the City Reach staff were mingling with participants on the front steps of the church. This was my fifth time at City Reach, and as I approached I waved to Pastor Mary. Her face lit up. “It’s so great to see old friends again!” she exclaimed. In the crowd I spotted Brenda, a City Reach staff person whom I’ve gotten to know through my participation in MANNA’s Monday lunch program. Brenda gathered me close and kissed my cheek. “I’m so glad you’re here!” she told me. What a welcome! I expressed to her my sadness about the recent death of Frank Brescia, a longtime member of the City Reach and MANNA leadership teams. “What a shock that was. It’s hit us all very hard,” she told me, shaking her head sadly. “We really, really miss him. He died doing what he did best: helping people who are homeless.”

The next day, the City Reach staff had first dibs at all the donated items we’d brought. Tommy, one of our hosts, looked through the suitcases and backpacks we had at our station. “Do you need one of these?” I asked him. “No,” he replied. “A friend does.” Picking up a medium-sized rolling suitcase he said, “This will work.” He stashed it in a corner, covering it with his jacket. “Don’t let anyone take this,” he told me. “I won’t,” I replied, trying my best to honor the friendship.

This time at City Reach I sensed with greater clarity the community of care that exists among people who are living with the challenge of chronic homelessness. They know each other. They watch out for each other. They miss each other when one of them is gone. Those who serve them – the City Reach pastors – are part of that network of care and love.

When you go to City Reach, you become part of that community of care, too. Pastor Mary calls you “Beloved.” Pastor Laura patiently explains and encourages. The homeless folks share their stories and answer your questions honestly and openly. On Saturday we all work together to provide hospitality to complete strangers, our “guests.” What a precious gift it is to be part of this community of care, even if it is only for a day!

Miles:

On my trip to St. Paul’s Church to attend City Reach, my friend Sam and I met a man named Scott. Scott asked us about our experience during the time. At first, I didn’t really know what to say but eventually, I mustered up an answer. He explained to me that knowing what we got out of the experience was important to him. It made some sense to me: he had gotten what he needed from City Reach and now he wanted to know if I had, too.

Scott was one of the big stand-out wonders for me at City Reach. Not only because he was a sincere person, but because he actually took time out to talk to me about my experiences at City Reach.

But let’s get back to that answer I gave Scott. What I actually said was something along the lines of “erm, uh well, uh it’s been really eye-opening and, uh, I’ve been really, uh, moved by, uh, seeing the reality of homelessness.” What I thought was much more eloquent. I was thinking: The reality of homelessness is so often regarded as a problem that only affects certain people but the stories that I heard from the City Reach staff showed me that it can happen to anyone.

The second answer sounds a bit better, doesn’t it? But I meant what I said. And not just Scott but all the staff and people I was there to serve are the greatest wonders I found at City Reach.

Grace:

Sherlock Holmes. What a detective. Don’t you just love that he’s able to make all those conclusions about a person based off of how they appear in the doorway? How easy it is for him to make quick assumptions and be right. We’ve all tried to be him at some point. Making educated assumptions based on what we see.

But what you see is not always the case or the full story.

At City Reach, even Sherlock would be surprised to know that some people choose to be homeless. If you saw Jayne, a City Reach staff person, on the street, you probably wouldn’t guess that she came all the way from England and gave up everything to live on the streets with her husband. She chose love over money, after getting tired of being separated from her husband who was homeless.

While at City Reach Becky said to me, “If I met Stacy on the street, I’d never know she was homeless.” Stacy, one of our City Reach hosts, doesn’t have the stereotypical rags and stench that many of us associate with a homeless person.

The personal stories that our City Reach hosts told were so much more than what their appearance said about them.

City Reach teaches you to take off the deerstalker hat and put on your listening ears instead. Many people distance themselves from people who appear to be very different. When you listen to these people’s stories, you begin to realize that there isn’t such a big distance between you both. They are in fact very relatable and each one has a story more elaborate than the clothes they wear.

Sam:

This past Saturday was the first time I had been to CityReach, and it may be one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had. I will probably never forget it, and the morals and lessons of those 20 hours.

The people I met there taught me a few things, some directly, some inferred. First, the common image of a homeless person as a panhandling bum is wrong. Homeless people are in fact people, and really great ones at that. Our guides and mentors, Tommy and Stacy, were some of the nicest people I have ever met. Stacy was a kind and sweet lady who was always helpful. While we gave out the clothes, she was a master at handing things out and talking to people, as that can be difficult.

On the other hand, Tommy was a tall and grizzled man, who seemed like he had seen much in his life. He took a leaderly stance and guided us around the Common as he told us stories of his life, childhood, and what it is like to live on the streets. He gave us some advice, like don’t fool around in school, etc. but the best advice he gave was “Keep your ears open, keep your eyes open.” He was telling us to always stay alert and on top of things, so you don’t get into precarious situations.

The scripture says Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. These men and women that we met last weekend might not have been baptized in the traditional sense, but they surely devoted themselves to teaching. The way they talked to us and the other homeless folks who we were giving the clothes to was quite teacherly and it appeared that they really believed in their mission with their whole hearts.

Nick:

Over the years, I have grown as a youth member of this church and as a young person in the world. I have grown through my experiences and the advice handed down to me from the generations above me as well as a few welcome surprises from below. Last friday was my 4th time participating in the City Reach program with All Saints. I have loved every single one of them, and have learned a lot through them. Even though the program each year is identical, there is always more to look forward to, because ultimately we know that the people we meet and the goings on that go on each year will bring new surprises, new advice, a new perspective on life and what it means to be homeless, and a whole lot of love. This year, there was a very special person that we met, who really embodied what City Reach means to me, especially in regards towards the growth of the volunteers. He also happened to be one of our guides on the night tour around Boston. His name was Tommy. While Tommy showed us around the Common, he did something that I had never experienced before during a City Reach. He turned his experiences and his mistakes into life lessons for us, the kids, and openly and strongly gave us life advice that really impacted me in a way that I hadn’t been before. At one point, started to talk about his tortured childhood. He was raised as an orphan, being shipped from house to house, never holding on to one family for long, until he became a drug addict. The most important thing, Tommy said, is to love and respect your parents, to keep working hard in school, and to never give up, because your parents never will. Your parents love you, and will do anything in their power to help you. The best you can do in return is love them and give it your all in whatever you do. For me, it is lessons like these that really define the City Reach experience, and bring life and light to the world.

Sarah:

As we walked around Boston Common and the Public Garden on Friday night, Stacy shared her story with me. She was a clergy spouse and Sunday school teacher when she became homeless. Listening to her history, one burning question came to mind. “How did becoming homeless affect your faith?” I asked her as we walked. Given her circumstances, I was surprised by her answer. It didn’t, Stacy replied, becoming homeless mostly just affected how she practices her faith. Keeping kosher is really not an option, although she told me she still hasn’t had a ham sandwich.

On Saturday, as we prepared our station to welcome guests, I had a long conversation with Larry about what makes a person wealthy. He shared that only twice had he ever prayed for money. And, both times, his prayers were answered with unexpected acts of generosity. But, regardless of his sometimes overwhelming material need, Larry considers himself to be extremely rich. Not only that, but it’s extremely important to him to only accept what he needs and to help out his ‘neighbors’ whenever he can.

Both Stacy and Larry exhibited a depth and strength of faith that fills me with wonder. It seems to me it would be so easy for each one to blame God for their circumstances. Yet, instead, they are both overflowing with joy and love and generosity. The invitation to share in this outpouring of gratitude is, at least for me, one of the true gifts of CityReach.

CityReach Prayer:

In closing, we’d like to share the prayer that was composed near the end of our experience:

Dear God,

We are thankful for growing this community of love as we share our time together. We have broken stereotypical boundaries by learning about patience, hospitality, and gratitude. Through hope, we’ve found joy from overcoming hard times.

Spreading laughter and kindness through peace shows us the blessings of compassion and humbleness. Serving people who are homeless has taught us that life isn’t all about money and it isn’t as scary as you may think. It’s very courageous to step forward and advocate for chronic homelessness, and to be kind while doing so.

We pray that with God’s help, someday everyone will have a safe place to stay.

Amen.

7

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Posted on Apr 30, 2017

Collecting Stones—sermon by Sarah Brock, postulant

Collecting Stones

April 30, Third Sunday in Easter:

Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17;
Acts 2:14a,36-41; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

 

Sermon by Sarah Brock, postulant for Holy Orders in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

This summer will be the 30th year of my family’s annual vacation in Ocean City, NJ. I have a lifetime’s worth of great memories from the time we’ve spent together at the beach. But, I think some of my most cherished moments there have been walking along the beach with Grampa collecting stones. Now, there are a couple of things you need to know about collecting stones with Grampa:

1. It’s not about quantity. You don’t just go and pick up every stone you see. Each one has to be just the right size and color and shape.

2. Since each stone you choose has to be just right, you have to walk very slowly. Pausing often to inspect the stones lying on top of the bit of sand just in front of you. Reaching down and picking up all sorts to look over more closely before deciding whether to keep it or toss it back.

3. Taking a walk to collect stones with Grampa isn’t about talking. The conversation is mostly kept to ‘hey, look at this one’ or ‘let’s see what you’ve got.’ And, that’s just fine with us. Walking together and looking for stones.

This is not the only walking I’ve done. But, there is something different about these walks along the beach with Grampa that just seem different than taking a walk around the neighborhood or walking home from work or any of the other walking I’ve done. I think perhaps there is something sacred about these particular walks that make them different.

Cleopas and his companion are walking together on that first day of the week. The very same day that Jesus’ tomb was found empty. After several very long, terrifying days they walk together to Emmaus, sadly discussing the events that have passed. Perhaps, wondering what it all means. Perhaps, wondering what, if anything, has changed. Perhaps, wondering if they have changed. This, too, turns out to be a different kind of walk.

As they walk together, talking over what they have witnessed the past few days, Cleopas and his companion are joined by Jesus. And, although they are kept from recognizing him, they welcome him to join them in their journey. They tell him the story of what has happened to the one they thought would be their mighty savior. In response, Jesus interprets his life to them.

Upon arriving in Emmaus, these two disciples invite Jesus to stay with them for the night. He joins them at the supper table and, as he blesses and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. Recognition dawns upon them in the familiar ritual of eating together.

Jesus vanishes, but the sanctity of this walk, of this meal, are only beginning to emerge for Cleopas and his companion. Only then do they recognize how their hearts burned as Jesus walked with them.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of the truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

These are words of Isaac Newton which I recently came across and I imagine this is much how the disciples felt following the events of Jesus’ death- diverting themselves with the familiar forms of the pebbles of ordinary life: the rhythm of walking, companionship, a shared meal at the end of a long day- while the great ocean of resurrection lay mysteriously before them.

This is how I, and I would suspect many of us, have felt in the wake of the death of a loved one. Clinging to the familiar pebbles of routine while the great ocean of resurrection lay mysteriously before me.

Resurrection is one of those concepts that is quite challenging. After all, the disciples, who actually knew Jesus and who heard him interpret the scriptures himself, had to see it to believe it! But, we don’t get to see the risen Lord in that same concrete way. So, we need to find just the right stones to carry with us as we dip our toes into the mystery of the resurrection. Something familiar and concrete that draws our attention away from the distractions of the world and keeps our eyes open to where there is resurrection in our lives. And the road to Emmaus is a trail of just such stones.

Did you notice the familiarity in the rhythm of this journey to Emmaus?

Gathered community,
Sharing the story,
Interpretation of the Scriptures and events that have passed, Blessing and breaking of the bread,
Re-entering the wider community and sharing the good news

How about now? Sound familiar?

These are the stones that we’ve collected over the centuries to help us enter into the mystery of Christ’s resurrection. These are the stones, worn smooth by humanity’s prayers through the ages, that draw our attention away from the distractions of the world; that draw our attention away from the distractions of the beach- kids yelling and splashing water, music blaring, the noisy people on the next blanket over- and open our eyes to the wonder of creation, the joy of a moment, the victory of light over darkness as the sun breaks through the clouds to warm your back as you walk.

The victory of light over darkness as beams of color stream through the stained glass, the joy of voices joined together in song and prayer, the wonder of creation as the water is poured into the font, the bread is broken, and the wine stings your tongue. Smooth stones collected and carried with us as we, too, re-enter the wider community of our daily lives to share our journey.

For in joy and wonder and victory, we experience resurrection.

There is one more thing about this journey that feels very familiar. Cleopas and his companion experience resurrection in the context of community. Neither one of them meets Jesus alone. Together, they come to recognize the resurrected Jesus in their midst.

Friday evening through most of yesterday, I had the privilege of coming to know the resurrected Christ in the midst of the community of people who are homeless in Boston. I’m immensely grateful to the individuals who were willing to share their stories with me as part of the CityReach program. CityReach is an opportunity for young people to learn first hand about homelessness from people who are or have experienced it. We walked through the city at night with individuals who shared their stories and experiences of living without housing, prayed together, ate together, and offered hospitality, food and clothing to unhoused guests. My heart burned as I recognized the Holy in these people who are both very different and, also in some surprising ways very much the same as me. In connecting with resurrection in the people in this community, my eyes were also opened to see resurrection in my self.

It was in the joy of a shared journey through Boston Common at night, the wonder of sharing our stories together over breakfast, the victory in searching for and finding the perfect shoes with someone shopping for items to help meet their basic needs that I experienced resurrection.

It was and is in the context of community that we experience resurrection.

Wherever you find yourself in your own journey, I hope you’ll carefully select a couple of stones that are just the right size and shape and color to bring you joy. I hope you’ll find someone to walk with who is happy to go slow and pause a lot along the way to wonder. I hope you’ll encounter moments of quiet companionship that leave space to really appreciate the warmth of the sun as it breaks victoriously through on a cloudy day.

But mostly I hope that, wherever you are in your journey, your heart burns with the experience of resurrection.

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Posted on Apr 16, 2017

Morning glories—sermon for Easter Day

Morning glories

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Photo Credit: angeljt Flickr via Compfight cc

Easter Day, April 16

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24;
Jermiah 31:1-6 ; Acts 10:34-43;
Matthew 28:1-10

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

 

“In the midst of life we are in death,” thus proclaims one of the anthems used in our burial liturgy. It’s also used on Holy Saturday…yesterday…the day before Easter. The day when Christ lay in the tomb…

“In the midst of life we are in death”…that’s true…all of Lent and Holy Week seek to remind us…to make us aware of…this truth. Of course, that anthem is used for burial because our burial liturgy is essentially an Easter liturgy, and—as Easter proclaims, the opposite of this is also true—in the midst of death we are alive. In the midst of tragedy, and devastation, and even unimaginable loss, there is still life. Death in life…life in death.

Hard to make sense of that, isn’t it? But it is true. And we know that it’s true because we live with this paradox of life in death in life everyday.

Denise Levertov captured this double…twinned truth in her poem, “Concurrence.”

Each day’s terror, almost

a form of boredom– madmen

at the wheel and

stepping on the gas and

the brakes no good —

and each day one,

sometimes two, morning-glories,

faultless, blue, blue sometimes

flecked with magenta, each

lit from within with

the first sunlight.

– Denise Levertov (Selected Poems, p. 138)

We are awash in new terrors each day…(people gassed, people bombed, people shot in yet another school, yet another act of senseless violence gone viral on video) so many new terrors each day that it has become “almost a form of boredom.” And yet, each day, there are also those one, or two morning glories…those glimpses of grace…connections with those you love…a touch…a smile…a simple kindness…life in death in life in death in life…

In the midst of death, two women walk in the predawn light to an unmarked tomb. Suddenly, there is an earthquake…a vision…lightening…blinding white…a rupture in their journey…a flash of life in the midst of their mourning.

“Don’t be afraid,” they’re told. “I know what you’re looking for, but he is not here…Look into the tomb…then go and tell the others. Tell them that he is going a head of you to Galilee. You’ll see him there.” Emboldened, they go… “with fear and great joy.” And that’s when it happens…That’s when they see him…in the midst of life…in the midst of death.

I love the fact that in Matthew’s telling of this, the women are empty handed. In Mark and Luke, they are carrying spices to properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but here they are empty handed. They are simply going to see the tomb.

I love this detail, because every time I have met the resurrected Jesus (or more accurately, every time the resurrected Jesus has suddenly met me), it has been when…and probably because…I was empty handed. Profoundly so.

The times Jesus has suddenly met me…are always times when I’m not merely empty-handed…but I’m actually beyond my ability to help…beyond my own sense of competence…feeling completely impoverished and utterly lacking in any significant resources…going to a grave…sitting with someone dying, or someone giving birth…watching children grow before your eyes…watching parents age and disappear before your eyes…being confronted with “each day’s terror,” the faces of the victims, and experiencing vicarious trauma through that… and having absolutely nothing to offer, or do, or say…I’ve found that the one place where Jesus consistently meets me is at the edge of my own limitations…beyond my own capabilities.

The other place where Jesus meets us is in the turning to go to Galilee. And here, Galilee is not just a spot on a map. Galilee is where it all begins. Galilee is where we are first called, and named…It’s home…It’s the core…the source of who we are.

Galilee is where Jesus called us to that mountain and reminded us—what we always knew, but daily seem to forget—that God is one. That we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength. That we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Galilee is where Jesus reminds us—again—that it is the poor who are blessed…it is the meek who will inherit…that the peacemakers are the children of God, and those who hunger and thirst for justice…for righteousness…will be filled.

Galilee is where Jesus reminds us—again—that we are salt…that mysterious substance that disappears into and preserves and flavors and changes—makes better—whatever surrounds it…that we are light that shines in the darkness, light that cannot and should not be hidden.

Galilee is the core…the source…Galilee is where we remember who we are and to whom we belong. And the really good news? We don’t even have to go all the way there, we only have to turn around and start down that road…to turn from the path that leads to the tomb and start back and that’s where Jesus meets us.

A phrase that gets reiterated a lot here, is “wherever you are in your journey of faith, you are welcome here.” You are welcome to participate as fully as you feel called and able in any of our services…our services to God and our services to our neighbors. And when I say that, I really do mean…”wherever you are” because I know that we are all at different places on the journey…some have lost loved ones…some have discovered new love…some are struggling with broken relationships, some are celebrating new ones. Some are full of energy and life, and some are just trying to get through the day. Some are grieving at death in life, and others are awakening to life in death. Wherever you are on that path…you are welcome here.

And these two movements: going to the tomb, and turning toward Galilee offer us a way of thinking about our lives together and our struggle to live faithfully and with integrity in this world. We do need to have the courage…the persistence …of these women to go to the tomb…to look into the darkened and death-dealing places of our world and to tell the truth about them. We need to be willing to peer into the tomb, because that is where we will see the first evidence of the resurrection…those flecks of magenta in the faultless blue of that emptiness.

And then we need to also have the courage…the persistence…to remember all that we have been taught…about who God is…about who we are…about how much God loves each of us…and how we are to love others in return…and then to turn and start back, once again, on that road toward Galilee…toward God…toward home. And Jesus—the resurrected Christ—will meet us and be with us, in life and death and life…always.

Amen.

Also informing this homily is Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining by Shelly Rambo

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Posted on Apr 5, 2017

Holy Week Reflection

Bloch, Carl Heinrich, 1834-1890. Peter’s Denial, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Rector’s Holy Week Reflection

For the past five weeks, we have been preparing for this holiest of weeks. On Sunday we celebrate the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (and into the church) where the culmination of our journey takes place. Special observances of Palm Sunday go back at least as far as the pilgrim Egeria, who kept a diary of her travels to the Holy Land in the 380s CE. She describes a number activities and observances which, although modified greatly over time, continue to be observed by Christians today including: procession with Palms, Maundy Thursday foot washing, and Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. The Palm Sunday procession has taken many forms over time and in various parts of the world. It is often a stational liturgy, with the faithful gathering at some distant location and then processing to sequential stations where portions of scripture are read or reenacted often chanting refrains or portions of Psalm 118 as they go; at other times the congregation gathers outside the church and processes in joyfully to the strains of the ninth century hymn “All glory, laud, and honor.” On Sunday, we continue in this ancient tradition and gather outside the church (or in the Guild Room and hallway if the weather is inclement), where we hear the story of Palm Sunday and then we march triumphantly into the church singing that same ninth century hymn. Please gather outside, and as you process in, please find your way to your seat.

The triumphalism of this entry quickly gives way to the reality of the rest of the week with its focus on the Passion narratives. Of all the worship services in the Christian year, the services of Holy Week—Palm Sunday and Good Friday in particular—pose some of the most difficult and painful problems for us in our relationship with our Jewish siblings. The Passion narratives that we hear on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday make various references to those assigned blame by the early followers of Jesus: “the chief priests,” “the elders,” “the crowds,” and “the Jews.” Over centuries these passages have been used to vilify and abuse entire groups of people—people who are the neighbors we are called to love—and have led to many pogroms and eventually the Holocaust, even today bomb-threats against Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and anti-Semitic graffiti continue to occur at alarming rates. As Christians, we must be responsible and attentive in both the hearing and proclaiming of our scriptures, mindful of the difficulties they pose. In 2015, Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University wrote an important piece on how to avoid Anti-Semitism during our annual celebration of the Passion, entitled ‘Holy Week and the Hatred of the Jews: Avoiding Anti-Judaism at Easter.” I commend it to your reading and copies are available on the table in the back of the nave. In it, she outlines six possible ways of reading these texts and the problems associated with each of them. She concludes: “Christians, hearing the Gospels during Holy Week, should no more hear a message of hatred of Jews than Jews, reading the Book of Esther on Purim, should hate Persians, or celebrating the seder and reliving the time when “we were slaves in Egypt,” should hate Egyptians.”

As we enter this holy time for Christians and Jews (Passover begins Tuesday 4/11), it is vital to remember that Jesus and his followers were Jewish, as were many of those to whom the four canonical gospels were written. The first century was a tumultuous time for Judaism, and so much of the language used in these scriptures is the language of an intra-family dispute—siblings arguing and assigning blame to secure and establish a distinct communal identity for itself. It is dangerous and wrong to take the terms from this time and use them as a guide to our own.

I hope that you will engage fully in all the liturgies of Holy Week: Palm Sunday, the Triduum, and Easter Day, and I pray that from these liturgies of Holy Week you will draw both comfort and challenge to grow more fully into the love of God.

 

In faith,

Richard+

 

“Lord, your love is broken open among cheering crowds and traitor’s coins, deserting friends and hands washed clean, the mockery of power and the baying mob: as we follow your way of passion, give us the faith to bring our weak and divided hearts to the foot of the cross and the door of the guarded tomb that they might be opened, astonished and healed: through Jesus Christ, who carries the weight of the world. Amen.

Steven Shakespeare, Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Collect for Palm Sunday.

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Posted on Apr 2, 2017

Can these bones live?—sermon for 2 April 2017

Can these bones live?

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Photo Credit: James St. John Flickr via Compfight cc

April 2, Fifth Sunday in Lent:

Psalm 130;
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.

O mortal, can these bones live again?

O Lord God, only You know.

We live in a deeply divided country.

I’m sure that’s not news to you. It’s just the truth. We all know this. For years, in the US, we’ve been shown maps of blue states and red states…occasionally someone does a county by county map that tries to show that we’re really all purple…but we all feel that the levels of polarization, and divisiveness seems to have reached historic levels. There’s not a lot we agree on.

One thing most American can agree on (seventy-one percent of us in a recent poll) is that the United States is losing its national identity…

Seventy-one percent think that our beliefs and values as a country are no longer clear…

We agree on that. What we disagree on is what those core beliefs and values are…or should be…it seems that the truths we hold are no longer so self-evident.

The good news is, that things like “Judicial fairness, [the] liberty and freedom granted by the Constitution, [and] the ability to achieve the American dream,” those are things that the vast majority of us agree are core to the American identity.

But there’s still a awful lot that divides us. For instance, whether we are, or should be, primarily a culture grounded in Christian religious beliefs…and the mores of our earliest European immigrant ancestors… Or whether we are, or should be, primarily mix of cultures and values from all parts of the world.

Republicans and Democrats in this poll responded very differently to those core identifiers.

Here’s something else most people agreed on, “More than half of Americans say the political polarization of the nation is extremely or very threatening, and another 34 percent say it is moderately threatening.”

We know these divisions are dangerous…but we have yet to see a way through them that we can agree on.

Can these bones live?

O Lord, only you know.

But let’s be honest…political divisions are just one facet of this divisive diamond.

It’s not just partisan politics that divide us: there’s a profound Urban/Rural split, there’s Whites and people of color, men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals, transgender and cisgender, the 1% the 99%, the religious and the spiritual but not religious, the employed and the unemployed, those with homes and those without, and let’s not forget the generational divides between the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, Gen-X’ers, and Millennials. Everywhere you turn you are confronted with the stark reality of people who see the world fundamentally differently than you do.

We are living in a time of tremendous disruption. Of monumental and possibly unprecedented change. A “paradigm shift” some might call it. All of the institutions that the those of you in your sixties and older grew up with, all the institutions that you were taught to rely on have changed, or crumbled, or been so reconfigured they’re almost unrecognizable. Those institutions (government, the church, education, the media, etc. …) were already changing so rapidly that my generation never really learned to fully trust them. And the generation that is now moving into leadership positions never knew those older iterations of our institutions and consequently have a new set of norms and expectations for how things work…what’s important…and how best to achieve it.

Can these bones live?

O Lord, only you know.

The prophet Ezekiel had an impossible task. His writing spans an intense 20 year period in Israel’s history…about 590 to 570 BCE…the earliest years of the Babylonian exile. During this period, the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. And the Judeans, the people of the Southern Kingdom, were very literally a divided nation…part of them (the unskilled, the poor) remaining in Judea, in the countryside around Jerusalem, and another part (the court, the skilled, the educated) living in captivity in the urban centers of Babylon. What Ezekiel gives voice to is the profound challenge they faced, of how to maintain their communal identity, outside of their homeland, with no Temple—no central institution—and no real leadership.

When Ezekiel is taken by God and set down in that valley of bones there is no end in sight to this situation. Two or more generations would grow up with the reality of exile before they made their way back.

It was a time of tremendous disruption. Everything they knew was in flux…their faith in all their institutions, and all their leaders…their faith in themselves…their faith in God…had been shaken to the core…What even was the core? Who were they in this new landscape? Could they maintain an identity, or would they disappear forever…

The narratives of exile (the prophets: Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and many of the minor prophets) resonate deeply for me now…they express this uncanny sense that I think many feel…the sense of being lost in a world not entirely of our own making…of being caught up in a world where things appear familiar, but, scratch the surface and they’re not. They describe this acute sense of being alienated from something central…something core… in a world of massive, and possibly cataclysmic, divisions. And they express a deep, passionate longing for genuine reconciliation, for true and abiding communities in which to live.

Can these bones live? O Lord, you know.

One of the powerful ironies of our time, is that we have so many choices about our communities…there are myriad communities that we could belong to…and yet…in the midst of all these choices, it is still community—real community— that we are starved for. Because we can choose to belong (or not) to any number of communities…we can often end up in a self-imposed exile surrounded only by people who are just like us… only seeing things that already confirm our own biases. And that starves us of true community…of life, and growth, and health.

We crave community. We are desperate for true community…community that doesn’t dismiss or paper over real difference, or that insists that others are welcome…but welcome only to become just like us…the communities we so desperately need are ones that hold those tensions…communities that are open to and safe for difference, that are generous with grace and plenteous with forgiveness.

All Saints strives to be such a community. And our community—our Parish is not just the worshipping communities that gather here on the weekend. People come here, week after week, to find healing in twelve step groups. People come here, week after week, to find wholeness, and challenge, and beauty, through music and arts groups. People come here week after week seeking a safe and hospitable place for their children in nursery school. About three times as many people come here each week to participate in one of the groups listed in the calendar as do who come here for worship.

And I think we share more with them than just our building…We share with them this hunger for community…a deep desire for a place where we don’t feel exiled from our best selves…from our core selves… a place where we can find healing, and wholeness, and support for our joys and our struggles. Where we can explore our relationships with God or our Higher Power, or however you define that…We share with them, and with so many others in our world, a deep and passionate desire for a place where hope, and beauty, and meaning can be found, and made together, even in the midst of so much that looks hopeless, and ugly, and meaningless.

Can these bones live? God knows…and this is God’s promise. This is the promise of Easter… “I will open your graves…and I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” This is our promise and our calling to live in community…in true community…in communion…with God and with all our neighbors.

Open our graves, O God, and may it be so.

Amen.

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