Love In Action

A sermon preached on the transferred feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston.  To read the scripture, click here.  To listen along, click the play button below.

This passage from Isaiah is one of the most powerful messages in all of Judeo-Christian scripture.  It’s used during Advent to proclaim the coming of Jesus.  It’s used as the text for Handel’s Messiah, sung so often as a celebration of Easter.  It’s used because it reminds us that, in our despair, the God of Love responds as our hope.

Isaiah is lamenting about the people of Israel – their inconsistency, their withdrawal from God and their pain and suffering as a result of their actions.  The story of Israel, you see, is the story of humanity.  It’s the story of us.  How we get lost in our human need to control.  How that need to control inevitably results in despair.  And how the God of Love saves us every time.st-john-the-baptist-icon-726

Isaiah’s lament is that there is no hope in Israel.  That they have reached the point of no return.
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of God blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.

Even in the midst of despair, there is hope.  Because the word of our God will stand forever… Isaiah says.

And this hope is pointed to over and over again throughout scripture.

  • The covenant of Noah: humanity had become violent and corrupt, God wiped out all life in a flood, but saw a spark of goodness and so, had Noah build an ark. Then God made a covenant to never destroy life again.
  • The covenant of Abraham: after Abraham’s never-ending faithfulness to the God of Love, God promised that this loving faithfulness would remain in humanity and that these people – the people who claimed the God of Love, would be called descendants of Abraham. And these descendants would be as numerous as stars in the sky.
  • The covenant of Moses: God spoke to Moses through the burning bush. Moses who didn’t think he had the capacity to lead, yet there was God setting his heart on fire so that he would go and lead the people out of Egypt.  So, when people are oppressed, God will always send us, causing our hearts to burn and lead others to freedom.

God’s covenants tell us that:

  • God will never destroy us.
  • God will plant within humanity the capacity to be servants to the God of Love, the God of Life, so that we may be servants of one another through our compassion.
  • And God will ensure that our own hearts will be set on fire to lead others to freedom because God desires for all of us to be free.

And, as Christians, we believe that Christ is the final covenant.  Love incarnate.  A self-giving love that reconciles the whole world to God.  We believe that the sacrament of Eucharist has the power to reconcile us to God because we become what we receive in that moment.  We receive the Body of Christ and we become the Body of Christ broken open for the world that God has made.  We become Love in action.

Not a sentimental version of Love that has us at the center.  But a love that risks all that we have and all that we are.  A love that has God at the center.

Isaiah’s words reflect something that all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures came to understand – standing in the breach.  Something that Jesus also understood.  And that is, as a descendant of Abraham and, more specifically for us, as a Christian… we are continually called to stand where we can see the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.  And point people toward Love.NWilson Crossroads

Our patron saint John the Baptist stood in that place.  And I believe that we have so sanitized scripture that we forget just how “political” John the Baptist was.  John was leading a protest.

Under oppressive Roman rule for nearly 70 years and in the midst of uprisings, John stood in the River Jordan, a boundary between the desert and the Promised Land, between the wilderness and salvation.

When all around him people were shouting for a warrior messiah to rise up against the Roman rule, John was standing in the breach seeing the state of the world and the Reign of God at the same time.  Calling people out to the desert to join him and then pointing to love.

And John saw love incarnate in the form of Jesus and said, “This is love.  This is what will save us.  Because it is love that is anointed by God.  It is love that we are called to serve.  And it is love we are called to become.”

When we really see what’s going on, I know it’s easier to tune things out.  And we all have so much going on in our lives that we sometimes just want to be able to get through the day.  I get it.  The good news is that we’re not in this alone.

And all of the trappings of our civilization will, at some point, cease to be.  This is guaranteed.  Isaiah reminds us that this world is withering grass and fading flowers.  And, as shocking as it may be to hear this, our nation will someday no longer exist… because all nations rise and fall.  Every one of them. That is the manner of worldly things.  I’m not trying to be depressing or outrageous or anti-American.  That’s just what happens over time.

As Isaiah reminds all of this is nothing compared to the word of God.  The comfort we are given is that God remains constant throughout all of it.

God’s word arises as a response to nothingness.
God’s hope arises out of despair.
God’s Love descends during times of fear and hate.

The way policies are being enacted in our country right now is immoral.  Immigration is a complex matter, but I believe our task as Christians remains the same – to stand in the breach with our brother John the Baptist, where we can see the state of the world and God’s Reign of love at the same time and continue pointing to Love.  Love becomes incarnate when we live it out.

So, if you feel your heart burning in anger, just as Moses heart did, don’t tune out, my friends.  Don’t think you unworthy to serve either. This is a difficult time and we are being asked by the God of love to move beyond our complacency and comfort and become the Body of Christ.  I ask you to spend time in prayerful silence, listening for God’s voice instead of opinions, and then do what God is calling you to do.

This Table we come to every week is where we reconcile ourselves to God and become what we receive – the Body of Christ broken open for the world God has made.

“Out of a great need
We are all holding hands and climbing.
Not loving is letting go.
Listen, the terrain around here
Is far too dangerous for that.”
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz

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Love Over Law

A sermon preached on Pentecost II (Proper 4) on June 3, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read the scripture.  Press play below to listen along.

Mark’s Gospel is my favorite version of Jesus’ story.  It’s succinct with a focused message, yet it’s full of mystery and metaphor to unravel. Every single word seems to have meaning and purpose. There is no extra flourishes or over-explanations.  Nothing more than what you need to go deeply into the mystery of Christ.  It doesn’t let language get in the way of the message.Grainfield

So when we read today’s passage from Mark, where Jesus is walking along in the grainfields with his disciples we don’t know exactly why Jesus and the disciples were there in the first place.  And we have no idea why the Pharisees were hanging out nearby watching him.  Or perhaps they were among the disciples, walking with them for some reason.  We have no idea.  But that’s not what matters

What does, matter is the message: the rules we make, even and especially when they are about God, can sometimes get in the way of actually serving God.

To answer the Pharisees concern about doing the work of picking on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds us of their celebrated ancestor David, who broke the rules – rules about worship, of all things – so that he could feed hungry people.  It wasn’t an act of disrespect.  It was an act of Love.

And what Mark offers us in this passage is that Jesus stood in contrast to the Pharisees in this way:  Jesus was trying to free people from the constraints of the rules to care for each other, trying to help us understand that the God of Love would rather that love be the way, trying to teach us how to practice being loving.

While the Pharisees, who were known to be so devoted to God, were really just devoted to the rules.  By contrasting Jesus and the Pharisees this way, Mark is telling us being devoted to the law is not the same as being devoted to God.

And to drive this point home, Mark quickly moves us to another scene – the synagogue.  So, now Jesus is in the “territory” of the Pharisees.  Again, we don’t know why or how he got there.  Perhaps Jesus did this specifically to make a point, or perhaps he was there for another task.  Again, we have no idea.  And, again, that’s not what matters.

What does matter is that the Pharisees are waiting to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and, upon seeing someone in need of healing, in need of God’s love, be ignored by the Pharisees, Jesus becomes angry and grieved at their refusal to act in Love.  At their refusal to hold the rule of Love above the rules.Jesus Heals Sabbath Chora Church

What’s more, Jesus realizes what’s happening.  He realizes that the Pharisees are just trying to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and he doesn’t care because what is important is love.  What is important is healing.  So Jesus listens for the law written on his heart and heals the man.

Why do we want to hang on to the rules?  Why is the law so important to us?  Why do we get ourselves hung up on why and how other people follow the rules we set in place?

I happen to love the rule about using turn signals.  And I judge people who don’t use their turn signal.  I believe this rule keeps us safe but, really, the reason I judge people is because it inconveniences me when a driver doesn’t use their turn signal.

How often do we do something like that?  Use a rule to make judgments about someone else.  Or when someone doesn’t follow a rule, we take it personally?

Most rules and laws are there to keep our selves and our neighbors safe.  This is a very loving act.  But what are the Pharisees doing here?  They aren’t paying attention to the reason for the rules – that’s what Jesus is doing.  As he says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

The Pharisees are using the law of the Sabbath to destroy Jesus, to destroy love, to destroy what he was doing.

When laws become more important than the people they are meant to serve, we have to stop and ask: do we value the law or do we value the life they are meant to protect?  Do we worship the law or do we worship the God of Love, the God of Life?  What are we practicing in our day to day lives?

Laws are good.  Following rules and laws are good.  But when the law is followed for the sake of itself, it becomes tyranny.  The law becomes the thing we serve, instead of the law serving us.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks about the law that is written on our hearts. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.  Jeremiah 31:33-34

Paul talks about this same law in his letter to the Romans: When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; Romans 2:14-15

And this is what Jesus means when he says, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The law written on our hearts is Love.  The love of God shining through us and becoming the love of Christ.  A love broken open for the entire creation.breaking-bread2

And this is what Christian formation is all about.  This is why we come to worship.  I mean, there’s a lot about learning about scripture and church history, etc.  But our formation in Christ comes through the process of learning to obey that law written on our hearts.  We learn to obey the Love – both for our neighbors and for ourselves because we love God.

And when we do that, we become a new creation.

When we talk about the love of Christ, it’s not some empty phrase. The Love of Christ forms us so that we may become more and more aware of the truth.  We slowly become followers of the Gospel instead of worshippers of the law.

It’s not that we necessarily break the law on purpose, but we may have to on occasion if we find a law to be unjust, to be against the rule of law written on our hearts, which is the Love of God.  And we slowly become attuned to a different frequency as we do these acts.  We attune to the love of God written on our hearts.

How do we love and care for the other?  How do we move in the world that manifests that?  How do we offer compassion?  How do we advocate for God’s justice in this world that is sorely in need of it?

This “becoming” is Christian formation.  This is the love of Christ forming our hearts so that we may become what we receive at Eucharist – God’s Love broken open for God’s creation.

Are we always going to get it right?  No.  We may still yell and scream at the person who doesn’t use their turn signal.

The bigger question is, are we willing to practice?  Are we willing to practice love instead of worshipping the law?

The church is a community of practice whose purpose is to live out the mission of Christ.

So, we practice listening for the law written on our hearts.  We practice becoming more devoted to the Gospel than we are to the worldly ways of being.  We practice Love and what it means to be loving.  We listen and we practice and we listen and we practice some more.

This is the way Jesus gave us to follow.  Because this is the way of life.

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The Trinity – Experiencing God’s Love

A sermon preached on Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.

The Sunday after Pentecost is also known as Trinity Sunday – a feast in honor of the Holy Trinity.

Most of Christianity states a belief in the Triune God – the Trinity.  We recite the Nicene Creed each week.  We baptize in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Or, in more contemporary parlance, God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer.  We offer prayers and give blessings in the name of the Triune God.  We say that God is three-in-one.celtic-trinity-knot

There have been many different ways of imagining this throughout the centuries: as a hierarchy, with God the Father/Creator at the top.  Another is as a set of interlocking circles, complete in themselves but interlocked, all of whom have equal importance.  We’ve also used a three-cornered Celtic knot, a symbol of life.  We gave this out last fall as a charm to the kids when we blessed their backpacks.  Some theologians have used the metaphor of a movement of Life or a community of Love.

Meanwhile, there is no statement in the entirety of scripture that tells us God is a trinity.   There are lots of ways in which God is described throughout scripture.  But the formula, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” is not one of them.

The Doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t developed until the fourth century, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.  And attempting to understand the exact nature of the Trinity has proven to be problematic.  It has actually gotten people into trouble before with words like “heresy” thrown around.  The Trinity is hard to pin down.  Because God is hard to pin down.

Rather than get lost in the theories about the specific nature of the Trinity, I’d like to focus, instead, on the activity of the Trinity – which is, the action of God, the action of Love.

Last week, we basked in the glow the fire that was Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s royal wedding sermon during our Feast of Pentecost.

He has had the world enraptured all week long with his message of God’s self-sacrificial love in and for the world – being on several morning talk shows and then helping to lead a silent march on Washington.  And this Love that Bp Michael talks about is present in the world in many ways.  The Trinity helps us wrap our minds around what it means to experience the God of Love alive in the world.

I’d like us to spend some time this morning considering the question, “How have you experienced God’s Love this past week?”ARublëv Trinity

Perhaps it was in a kind word or gesture, not necessarily directed at you, but something that you witnessed.  Or something that flowed through you to another person.  I think kindness is most often how we experience God’s Love.  It’s immediate and intimate.  But, if we’re honest, it has us at the center, not God.  Still, kindness is incarnate love.  How has kindness been a part of your world this week?

Perhaps it was an epiphany, a moment of enlightenment in which you came to a new understanding about something or someone that opened your heart in some way, stopped you from sitting on a throne of judgment.  How has compassion been a part of your world this week?

Perhaps it was delight or joy, an experience of beauty – not like the covers of fashion magazines or Hollywood – but something that takes your breath away when you see it or hear it or smell it or taste it or touch it.  How has beauty been a part of your world this week?

In work or ministry, perhaps?  The generosity of someone’s effort and the satisfaction of doing something and in the appreciation of watching someone else do something with skill.  Or simply stepping up to do something that needs to be done.  How has work or ministry been a part of your week?

In silence.  When all the other noise calms down – the busyness of the world and your smart phone and your own thoughts – when there is a moment of complete silence or serenity, it’s as if it’s just you and God and God is at the center.  How has silence been a part of your week?

In the rhythm of Creation… mourning doves and turtles as they make nests and lay their eggs and flowers appear and trees bloom with sweetness.  The tides roll in and then out again and rain follows hot humid weather to clear the air.  How has Creation been a part of your week?

These are all wonderful, generative experiences of God’s love.  But contrary to what we might think, God’s love is not always full of warm fuzzies.  Sometimes God’s love shines forth as truth telling or clarity.

This week, we learned about horrific new policies that separate children from their parents at detention centers along the border and how nearly 1500 children have been lost so far.  This is not easy to hear.  It’s not sweet or kind.

 

But the hearing of it was God’s love.
Not the fact that it’s happening – no, that is truly and literally demonic.

But that we have learned about it and can make a choice to do something about it… that is God’s love reaching out to us. In his dream, Isaiah has given to us a deeper understanding.  Isaiah sees a vision of the incarnate reality of the Love of God – angels, messengers of God are telling him that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.

And Isaiah’s response is, a confession of his willful ignorance.  “Woe is me! [I have not understood this until now.] I am lost, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Isaiah became willing.

isaiah-6-chagall

Isaiah’s Call by Marc Chagall

And so too can we become willing.
Willing to take action.  Willing to be sent.

 

When we learn of unloving action in this world, it’s God’s Love – the voice of the Lord – that is reaching out to us and asking, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

And we say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we finally see how the whole earth is filled with God’s glory…
we can no longer deny God’s glory in the immigrant family trying to escape horrific circumstances in their homeland.  The loving response is to act, to change what’s happening here so that people are treated with dignity and respect.  We say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we finally see that the whole earth is filled with God’s glory…
we can no longer deny God’s glory in the school children who have to participate in “active shooter drills.”  The loving response is to act to change so that children can be children and not live in fear of being gunned down in their school.  We say, “Here am I; send me!”

When we can no longer deny God’s glory in the poor, the farmworkers, the families living on minimum wage who can’t afford a two-bedroom apartment and could easily be bankrupted by a hospital bill.  We act in Love to change policies that keep all people locked in poverty.

When we can no longer tolerate the racism that still infects our culture.
We respond and we say, “Here am I; send me!”

The love of God is reaching out to us, enabling us to see differently and this, I believe is the action of the Trinitarian God.  The Trinity is not just some construct made up by theologians.  The Trinity is a very real experience of God’s presence as the center of the universe:

God’s love as the foundation of our very being.  God’s love in the beating heart of the person we are called to serve.  God’s love in the desire to act on behalf of our reconciling messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

God’s love connects us to one another in the very fact of our flesh, every one of us made of the same elements of the earth, in the sharing of breath as fellow creatures of God, and in our acts and responses of care for one another.

Irish poet and theologian, John O’Donohue, says “We are children of the clay, who have been released so that the earth may dance in the light.”

Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

And our messiah, Jesus of Nazareth tells us, “Love God.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

What Jesus talks about in his secret, nighttime conversation with Nicodemus isn’t some brainteaser or theological puzzle when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus is telling Nicodemus about a rebirth that moves us beyond a life that focuses on our self as the needed recipient of God’s love and into a new life where God’s Love is at the center and we are conduits of it.

This is what changes the world.  When we are moved, not by what we can get for ourselves, but by what we are called to do for one another.  This is God’s redemptive, self-emptying, reconciling Love made manifest through God’s holy Creation, which is us.

We are God’s holy Creation.  We are God’s love incarnate for one another.

May we dance in the light.  May we remember we belong to one another.  And may we truly come to love one another as we love our self.

This is what changes the world.

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Love Is the Way

A sermon preached on the Feast of Pentecost, May 20, 2018, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  If you’d like to read the scripture, click here.  If you’d like to listen along, click the play button below.

The story from Acts is miraculous. pentecost-icon-458

The disciples were all together in one place.  And there came like a rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house – it must have felt like the walls would burst open.  And they were given the gift to speak God’s Word in many ways to many people.

The Feast of Pentecost is considered to be the birthday of the church.  Jesus has been midwifing the church by teaching his disciples.  Telling us that Love is the most important thing. Telling us that it’s ok to doubt sometimes because there will always be incarnate proof of God’s Love in the world.  Telling us that it’s ok to be fearful sometimes because there will always be the voice of God, the Good Shepherd, calling us back.  And telling us that the most important thing we are to remember, is to Love God and to Love our neighbor as ourselves.  Love is the way.

With these lessons, Jesus has been coaxing us out of our inertia, been inviting us out of our safety, been preparing us to receive this rush of violent wind that fills our entire house.  A wind so strong that we don’t know exactly what will happen.  We don’t know how we will be changed.

Because the Holy Spirit will have her way with us and just might give us a miraculous gift to speak God’s word of Love.  And what would that be like?

But surely Pentecost is just a story that can be dismissed as some fantasy, right?  Something so far beyond imagination that it must be some kind of dream, right?

Except… that I watched Pentecost happen yesterday.  And maybe you did too.

 

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached at the royal wedding.  An African-American charismatic preacher from North Carolina, whose ancestors were enslaved by the same imperialist society overseen by the British royal family. This is the person invited to preach at the royal wedding.

And, he was his charming, loving, reconciling, effervescent, disarming self.  Plain-spoken yet eloquent.  Personable yet profound. He wasn’t exactly what many would have pictured at a royal wedding so they labeled it as “unconventional.”  For so many, this was a scene beyond their imagination.

And, as if blown open by some violent wind, all day long the articles flew across the internet about this amazing preacher named Michael Curry.  Articles, literally, from all over the world. (Google: Michael Curry Wedding Sermon)

And the articles didn’t focus on his race, being black.  The articles didn’t focus on his nationality, being American.  The articles focused on what he said.

Time Magazine reported: “The Internet Is Raving Over Bishop Michael Curry’s Royal Wedding Sermon.”

Normally, you hear about the bride’s dress… or someone’s dress.  But something else happened, something beyond our imagination, beyond our wildest dreams… people heard the word of God yesterday.

It was a Pentecostal moment.  The Good News really did become the Good News.

People heard the word of God and the word they heard was Love.  The word they heard was Love. Fire heart

Because, as Bp Michael told us yesterday, “There’s power in love.  Don’t underestimate it.  Don’t even over-sentimentalize it.  There’s power in love.”

The word of God given by God’s Holy Spirit is Love. The word of God shown to us in Jesus the Christ is Love. The word of God that is the Creation itself is incarnate Love. Love speaks a language all its own and all languages at the same time.  And this is what Pentecost is about.

Maybe Pentecost seems like a fantastical story because it’s hard to imagine ourselves in the room where we are swept up by that kind of Spirit, that abundance of Love.  Where our hearts are so opened that we become something that we could not have expected. But what if it did?  What if we did?

Because God’s Love is already pouring down upon us, waiting for us to accept it, to open our hearts and simply receive it.

I wonder if we get scared to open our hearts because so many times we’re carrying something heavy… helplessness or anger or shame or fear or worthlessness or disbelief… and we hide this something away so that no one sees the chink in our armor.

But God already knows these things.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  As God told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

There is nothing that you cannot bring to God because God accepts all, and God transforms all, and God redeems all.  Because God loves all.

God can take your anger.  God can take your fear.  God can take your most painful moment, your deepest sorrow, your most shameful secret.  God can even take your hate.  God takes it all as your sacrifice to Love.

We sacrifice these burdens we carry, these false understands of ourselves, these wounds, these lines we draw in the sand… we sacrifice them all to God and what we receive is such a surprise that it can knock us off our feet on the Day of Pentecost.

Because we think that offering this pain to God would only bring more pain.  But what we receive is Love.

God’s Love is transforming and redemptive.  God’s Love is healing and reconciling.  God’s Love flows into all the parts of your house, your heart, and, like a violent wind, bursts open the windows and the doors and airs all of the pain out of that place and replaces it with Love.

This is the miracle of Pentecost.  That we are in that room and that we realize God’s love is for us too.  And in that, we cannot help but become the Love that we are given.

And God is speaking to us in the language of our own heart, whatever it is we need to hear.  We are the disciples in that room and, having heard the lessons from our teacher Jesus over these 50 days, we come to finally understand that God’s Love includes us.

All of us.  All of me and all of you.

And what can we do with a Love like that?  Anything.  Everything.  All things.  Beyond our wildest imaginations

Paul says to the Romans in his letter, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly…”  He says, “Hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  And he says “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…”

In other words, Paul is reminding us that our hope lies in what we cannot see.  Our hope lies in something that we cannot fathom.  Our hope lies in the already but not yet Reign of God.

In this Pentecostal moment where we might come to realize that God’s Love for us just might transform us and we don’t know what that will look like.  But Paul reminds us that the world is waiting for it to be born into the world.

So, perhaps, if we allow ourselves to believe in this Love, if we surrender ourselves to it and let it fill us, we might begin to imagine what this Love might look like.  We might grasp, if even for one millisecond, a sense of God’s redemptive, transformative Love for the world.

Because this Love is not some sentimental thing that has us at the center.  We’re talking about a Love that puts God in the world, that reminds us that God is here in the center of the world… A Love that changes the world.  Because it’s not that we receive Love, we become Love.  We become Love.

Jesus says, I am the way and the truth and the life. Because Jesus was Love incarnate in human form.  Giving us a way to be in the world but not of it.  The way of Love.

Bp. Michael said, Think… and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, poverty will become history. When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary. When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down, down by the riverside to study war no more. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room, plenty good room, for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we treat each other like we are actually family. When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all and we are brothers and sisters, children of God.

So, my friends, on this Day of Pentecost, let the wind of God’s Love fill the houses of our hearts.  Let this violent wind come and burst this house wide open so that we might be given the gift of speaking God’s Love to whomever we meet.

Let us walk the way of Jesus.  Let us surrender to the way of Love.
Behold what you are, my friends.  Become what you receive.

 

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Practicing Perfect Love

A sermon preached on Easter V, April 29, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen along to a recording.

 

MDMStudios.Rysomes

Rhizome by Malcolm MacDougall.  Click here to view his website.

 

The image on the front of your bulletin today is a photo of a sculpture by a Westchester County artist named Malcom MacDougall called Rhizome.  You can see individual members rising above the surface, while you can also see that they are all attached to something larger, below the surface.  This something larger also puts out roots that travel downward.

The word rhizome comes from botany.  It’s plant in which the root is really an underground stem that sends out roots into the soil underneath and shoots through the surface above from nodes along its length.  Ginger, iris, hops, bamboo, asparagus… all examples of this kind of creature.

It’s also called a rootstock or a creeping rootstock.  What is unique about a rhizome is that it’s one big organism that lives underground.  What we see above ground are the singular shoots that arise to receive sunlight and release oxygen.  And underneath the surface of the earth, these shoots all come off the same organism.  You can see this in the cover image.

Aspen groves are commonly known as the largest organisms in the world because their

FallPando02

The Pando Aspen Grove in Utah.

root structures are rhizomatic.  Even though we see individual trees above ground, each aspen trunk is connected into the larger root structure below the earth’s surface.  This means that, although the individual trees may only live for up to 150 years above ground, an aspen colony can live much, much longer.   For example, it’s estimated that the Pando aspen grove in Utah is somewhere between 80,000 – 1,000,000 years old.

 

aspensuckers

The shoots of an Aspen colony, known as “suckers.”

I think this image is helpful in opening up today’s scripture a bit.  This image of individual members connected to and sustained by the nourishment offered by the greater colony or community.  This image of individual members gathering nourishment, not for themselves but offering it to the larger community so that the community can continue to thrive.

 

I find this image helpful because this is how God’s love works.  When we abide in God’s love and allow ourselves to be nourished by God’s love, what we come to realize is that God is found in and through our love and care for one another.  This is the perfect love that casts out fear.

The First Letter of John contains some of the most beautiful language in all of scripture. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment… those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Considered to be a part of the Johannine writings, this letter is attributed to the community of John.  This means it’s written, not necessarily by the same author as the Gospel of John and the Revelation to John, but through the same school of teaching as those books of scripture. The entire letter is only 5 short chapters, but it contains the most essential teachings of what a community centered in Christ is called to manifest for one another and for the world – this connective force which is God’s Love.

And in today’s Gospel, we learn that it is through Jesus we are able to do this.  Jesus reminds his followers that he is the true vine, the manifestation of self-giving love in the world.  Jesus, the one who teaches us that to offer oneself in love is the greatest way to receive love, because it is in giving that we receive.

It’s a mature understanding of what love is about.  We don’t measure love by what we receive, but by what we give… that is, if we can measure love at all.

As Americans, I know we have trouble truly living into this.  Well, as humans, really.  I know I have trouble with this.  The message of God’s love runs counter to what the culture around us tells us we’re supposed to get.Proof

We want a return on our investment, right?  We want more for our money.  We tend to feel foolish if we don’t receive something for what we give and we feel gullible if we believe in people.  Cynicism and skepticism give us a sense of control, so we won’t look stupid if someone proves to disappoint us.  We demand punishment if someone does something wrong, thinking that, unless
someone is made to feel bad, weFool me once won’t feel better.  We don’t believe in God’s power to transform others so we certainly don’t believe in God’s power to transform us.

This is fear, not love.  And fear kills community.
Because when we are too busy in our fearful wanting and protecting, we withhold what we are asked to give. It’s almost as if we say, “You want me to give?  Prove that you’re worthy first.”  And sometimes we say that very thing.

And this is exactly how we cut ourselves off of the vine that is Jesus.  Every time.
We think we’re cutting other people off, but we’re really cutting ourselves off.  How can we expect to receive nourishment from a vine if we’re not willing to be fully a part of it, if we’re not willing to fully abide in it?

When we abide in Jesus, he abides in us.  When we offer ourselves to one another, when we stop living in the fear that we won’t have enough, we are given so much more than we could possibly imagine.

Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  Now, this isn’t about thinking of God as a vending machine because God is not a vending machine who does our bidding.  We don’t pray to God to get what we want.  God is not Santa Claus.

Jesus is saying that the practice of offering yourself, which is what it means to abide in Empty BowlJesus, will change us, will fill us up, will complete us.  And we will have all we need and more.  We will have all we could possibly ever want.

John’s letter to us reminds us that God’s love is not about personal salvation.  God’s love is about salvation through community, through loving one another as fully as we can.  As we abide in God, God abides in us.  And this is not done individually, this is done collectively – through loving one another, through being a part of the whole.

This letter was written to a community, not to an individual. “Since God loved US (not “since God loved YOU) so much, WE also ought to love one another… Love has been perfected among US in this… because as he is, so are WE in this world… WE love because he first loved US.  Those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

And we’re back to our rhizome.  What we see are the individual members… above ground.  And we make the mistake of believing that each individual person is just that, disconnected and separate.  And that means we believe that we are disconnected and separate.  We get upset if we don’t “feel” connected… manifesting as sorrow or loneliness or anger or resentment or envy… but remember that all feelings are transient, fleeting.  Feelings don’t make the connection any less real.  It is God’s Love that is constant and eternal.

So perhaps remembering the image of the rhizome, may help us to remember the truth.  That we are all connected, and it has never been otherwise.  And, because of that, we are responsible to the greater whole to stretch our leaves up, allowing God’s glory to shine forth through us, gathering nourishment and giving ourselves fully to the larger community, to love one another through Christ.

This is the perfect love that casts out fear.  For why would we fear when we know for certain that we are connected to something larger than ourselves?  And why would we fear giving of ourselves as completely as possible if we realize, truly realize, that we will receive whatever it is that we give away?

This is not an easy task, to always remember, to always give so completely of ourselves.  We have so much in this world that tells us otherwise, that brings us back to fear again and again and again.

But take heart, my friends, because more than anything else, Christian community is about practicing this love – this perfect love that casts out fear.  It’s not that we will ever be perfect, but we practice.  We practice living into this perfect love.  We practice abiding in Jesus.  We practice loving one another.

And what we learn here at this Table every week in our practice together, we take into the world around us, the community we serve, becoming a bridge of God’s Love – connecting, inviting, sharing, and serving.

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Glory

A sermon preached on Easter III, April 15, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.  Click here to read today’s scripture.  Click the play button below to listen.


“You mortals, how long will you dishonor my glory; how long will you worship dumb idols and run after false gods?”

In today’s psalm, God asks us a very pointed question: How long we will dishonor the glory of God by worshipping dumb idols and running after false gods?

The glory of God.
We use the word “glory” a lot.  We devote the beginning of our Eucharistic liturgy to proclaiming the “glory of God” – when we sing or say the Gloria together.
Glory to God in the highest,
and peace to God’s people on earth.
… we worship you, we give you thanks,
we praise you for your glory.

What exactly are we talking about when we use the word, “glory?”

“Glory” is one of the most common words in all of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.  In the Greek scriptures, the word we translate into “glory” is the word “doxa” which carries the connotation of splendor and brightness, value and wonder.

In the Hebrew scriptures, the word is “kabod” which originally meant “weight” or “heaviness”.  In our modern American English tongue, I think this translates to our word: “gravitas” – a dignity or weightiness, a quality that calls forth intrinsic authority and respect.  It’s not magnetism or showiness, but more like wisdom, centeredness, and depth.

So, we use the English word glory to articulate splendor, dignity, brightness, and wisdom.  These aspects of God that we praise and respect because of their inherent value and wonder.  And we intrinsically respond to this glory with our adulation and devotion… our worship.

 

A few weeks ago, I preached about how God’s glory shines forth in and through us when we are living into our true purpose as creatures of God.  That is, when we are giving ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This is the very covenant written on our hearts in the book of Jeremiah, that we are called to give ourselves in love.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation.  And we do this as broken and forgiven creatures of God. Extravagantly and wildly loved by God.

God’s glory shines forth in us as we lift up others in our midst.

The concept of “glory” often gets confused with “vainglory” which is closer to “vanity” or “pride.”  Vainglory causes us to boast, seeking victory.  It’s arrogant, fame-seeking, and pretentious.  Vainglory arises from a misguided need to prove our worth because we have forgotten just how loved we are.

Vainglory is a striving for adulation of ourselves, a striving to be seen, to get what we think we need.  A striving to belong.
While glory is a surrender to God that happens when we focus our attention outside of our self – because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  A realization that we already do belong.

So, glory is not about golden chariots and pomp and medals of honor and celebrity – that’s vainglory.  Glory is about authenticity and surrender and life-giving shared power in service.  Glory is about relationship with others and seeing Christ in one another, the Christ worthy of adulation and praise.cslewis1

To unpack this a bit more, I want to quote a bit from C.S. Lewis, who is best known for writing the Chronicles of Narnia.  He was known as a theologian in England in the first part of the 20th century and wrote a sermon called The Weight of Glory in 1942 in the middle of the horrors of World War II.  And here’s what he says:

“I turn next to the idea of glory… Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all… Glory suggests two ideas to me… either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity.

 Perhaps it seems rather crude to describe glory as the fact of being “noticed” by God.  We can be left utterly and absolutely outside—repelled, exiled, estranged, finally and unspeakably ignored. On the other hand, we can be called in, welcomed, received, acknowledged. We walk every day on the razor edge between these two incredible possibilities. Apparently, then, our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache.

 And this brings me to the other sense of glory—glory as brightness, splendour, luminosity. We are to shine as the sun, we are to be given the Morning Star… We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

Sometimes, we get a little lost.  Because the world is a difficult place.  It doesn’t make sense many days.  And, lately, it’s hard to make sense of it at all.  I have trouble listing all the ways in which the world doesn’t make sense to me.

And this doesn’t begin to speak about the personal concerns we go through – the illness and grief, the pain and fear.  It’s ok to get lost sometimes.  It is nothing but completely understandable that we find ourselves despairing or depressed from time to time.  When we’re in this state, it’s so easy to reject others because we’re so busy thinking that we are rejected.

When we call out to God: Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.

Because, like Lewis says, we long to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.  In other words, we long to belong.

But being lost isn’t the whole of who we are.  God’s response to this petition is to stop running after false gods and dishonoring God’s glory.  Because the mistakes we make don’t define us.  The grief we carry, the ways we have been hurt, the struggles in our lives… this is not who we are.  We are so much more.Mom Show

I’ve been watching this show called Mom lately.  It’s about a group of women who are in AA and how they support one another in the program.  The oldest character, Marjorie, who has been in recovery the longest, is always reminding her friends of the importance of service, that serving others is not only a good and helpful thing to do, but it lifts us out of our own struggle.

Because when we stop focusing on ourselves, service reminds us of our greater purpose – to give ourselves in love.  In other words, to let God’s Glory shine forth though us.

As we move into relationship with others, we stop focusing on what we aren’t getting or how we aren’t seen, on what other people are or aren’t doing.  The voices of judgment quiet down.  Depressive and dark thoughts drift away.  And as this happens, we begin to realize, that not only do people need us, but we love being of service.

There us a mutuality in relationship because relationship is a real and costly love.  The cost being that we give up the illusions that keep us locked in stasis.

C.S. Lewis continues:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, [these are worldly]. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses… (s)he is holy in almost the same way, for in her/him also Christ the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

You are no mere mortal.  I am no mere mortal.  The people who live in this neighborhood are no mere mortals.  The undocumented immigrant, the person who receives welfare, a child in Syria, a person who drives us crazy, the addict, the homeless person, the police officer, the young black man who gets shot at by his neighbor for asking directions… None of them are mere mortals.

We are all beloved holy creatures of God, blessed with the desire to be seen by God and therefore, blessed to shine forth God’s glory simply because we are children of God.  We are luminous by our very nature.

And when we forget, it’s being in service to one another that helps us to remember.

 

Today’s second reading from John’s first letter says, “we should be called children of God; and that is what we are… what we will be has not yet been revealed.  What we do know is this: when Christ is revealed, we will be like Christ, for we will see Christ as Christ is.”

We don’t enter into glory by ourselves.  We don’t achieve glory.  We enter into glory by bearing witness to Christ in our midst. We enter into glory when we serve Christ in our midst – when we are of service to one another – to our neighbors – to the other in the course of our day. We enter into glory when we take the time to witness glory in another.

Because when we see God out there, we feel seen by God in here.  This is when the Kingdom of God is present, when the Reign of God becomes real and tangible.

When the church is at our best, this is who we are.  The Body of Christ, broken open for the world – connecting, inviting, sharing, serving the diversity of God’s creation right here, right now.

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We Are Hope

A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Click here if you’d like to read the scripture.
Hit the play button below to listen along… sorry about the recording.  I missed the joke at the beginning (which I got from the Vicar of Dibley) and I wasn’t at the pulpit when it was over so it goes a little long.  Still, you get the gist.  🙂

Given that Easter has fallen on April Fool’s Day this year, I thought it best to start with a joke.  And I didn’t know this until this year because it’s not something they teach in seminary… or, if they do, I missed it.  But there is a tradition to start every Easter morning sermon with a joke.

The idea is that God has played a joke, you see, but not on us.
Because Christ defeated death, every Easter morning, the joke is on the Devil – the diabolos, the spirit of division, that which splits us apart.

But people still die, as we know.  Death hasn’t really been conquered in the way we think it’s supposed to be.  We still live in the midst of enormous pain and suffering.  How can we possibly say that death has been defeated once and for all and the world has been redeemed through Christ?

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest who is well known for her amazing preaching ability, puts it this way:  Christianity is the only religion that confesses a God who suffers.  It is not a popular idea, even among Christians.  We prefer a God who prevents suffering, only that is not the God we’ve got.  What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Think about that… “we prefer a God who prevents suffering”  How true that statement is.  I can’t tell you the number of conversations where someone says, “Well, if there is a God, why does he allow…?” And just fill in the blank.

Why does God allow war?  Why does God allow people to be enslaved?
Why does God allow racism, misogyny, abuse, homophobia?
How about global warming, enormous islands of plastic floating in the ocean, toxic drinking water.
Why does God allow poverty?
Why does God allow me to personally suffer… death of a loved one, illness, relationship loss, estrangement, financial problems, or just plain fear.
Why does God allow the violence… never-ending violence.

But Taylor reminds us: God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.

I took a poll of people on Facebook last week.  I asked them to tell me how they were disappointed in Jesus.  I said, I invite your thoughts on how Jesus is (or would have been, had you been a first century follower of his) a disappointing messiah for you.  I said, ignore Christian theology and speak from your humanness.

And, I was heartened to see people respond honestly. People offered all kinds of ways in which they were honestly disappointed in Jesus, in God:
That healing doesn’t look like we need it to look.
That, in all his power and popularity, he wasn’t able to employ anyone.
That he was too political.
That he wasn’t political enough.
That he was unorthodox and too much a radical hippy-type.
That we feel abandoned by his leaving.
That he isn’t intimate enough.
That he didn’t just get up and leave the garden so he was safe from death.
That he died too soon.
That he continues to allow injustice and cruelty.

Of course, we have a laundry list of expectations for God.  But, if we learn anything from the story of the Resurrection, we learn that God does not conform to our expectations.

I mean, there was Mary, Mary, and Salome… preparing the herbs and spices to anoint the body of their friend and teacher.  They must have been angry and depressed and sad and, resigned.  This teacher they had been following, gave them reason to hope after all.  But now, he was dead.  Their expectation, dead along with their messiah.  It felt like God had abandoned them.GRichardson The Empty Tomb

And they get there, and nothing was as they expected.  Instead of the burden of removing a stone so they can get to the dead body of their friend, there is some young person in white who tells them something that completely freaks them out.  So much so that they fled in terror and amazement.
They were told: Don’t be alarmed.  The person you seek is not here.  He is in Galilee.  Go and tell the others.

What a strange thing to have come upon that morning.
But God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain.  As Taylor says, It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them – not from a distance, but right close up.

Yes, we still live in the midst of war, and enslavement, racism, misogyny, homophobia, poverty, global warming… all of it.  The Devil, the spirit of division, is alive and well and we see it every day.
And… God is here with us in the suffering, not forcing human choices, but helping us in the midst of all this so we can find the way through.

We may wish to believe that God abandons us when things get bad, but the God of Life, this incarnate God, never abandons us.
I have proof because I hear the peepers return every spring.  The birds find their way back and the earth warms and the sun keeps rising every day.

Death is never the final word.  Life finds its way through, sometimes in the most inconvenient of ways.
Because God doesn’t prevent pain.  God stays with us in the midst of it.
Finding, with us, the ways to help.
Discovering, with us and through us, the ways to make things brighter and better… not just for us, but for the whole of creation.

Does that mean that we might be uncomfortable?  Yes.
That, perhaps, we may be asked to give something up so that all life may continue?  Yes.

Because, and here’s the really important part… In giving our life, we receive life.  As we give up our expectations… as we give up our disappointments…
As we give up the thing that we hold so precious – our anger, our sorrow, our pain, our fear, our cynicism, our self-judgment, our self-indulgence…
As we give these things up, we receive so much more, more than we would have ever received if our expectations been played out.
We receive life.  And that means death is never the final word.

So, like the person in white, sitting there at the edge of the tomb, I say, don’t be alarmed, my friends.  In the midst of your pain and suffering, when God helps you find a way back to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy of them… don’t be alarmed that you lose the thing that you held onto.

God is just doing what God always does… giving you new life.  Giving you new breath.  Giving you Hope.

I say, embrace this new life, grasp this Hope, and run with it.  Flee the tomb and go!  Run all the way to Galilee, where the world is waiting for the Hope that you bring, for the Love that you are.

Hope is the primary Christian vocation.  All Christians have a vocation to be people of Hope, people of Love.  This is the core of who we are.  The Body of Christ is nothing more than a group of people who are devoted to being Hope in and for the world.where-the-church-is-830px-708x541

It’s not about what God can vanquish from the world on our behalf. It’s about what God can do through us when things happen to us.  That is the joke God plays on the Devil.  That the people of God do not succumb to the ways of the world but, instead, we become what we receive – the Body of Christ, broken open for the world.

I say, don’t accept the terms of death the world gives us.
Be healers and justice seekers.
Be people who feed and nourish others.  Be climate activists.
Be artists and supporters of artists who tell the powerful truths.
Be helpers.  Be friends.
Be change agents in this world.
Be a sanctuary for God’s creation.

Why?  Because the God we worship compels us to pull together the shattered fragments the world so often leaves behind and, in doing so we become co-creators with God, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to life here and now… right close up.

That’s the joke on the Devil.  We are the punchline.

The Reign of God is not something that happens when we die.  The Reign of God is something we are capable of bringing to life right here and now in this place.  As we give our lives over in service to Hope, in service to Love, we are capable of bringing the Reign of God to bear.  That is hope.

Ooh Child by the Five Stairsteps

Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Ooh child, things are gonna get easier.
Ooh child, things’ll be brighter.
Someday we’ll get it together and we’ll get it all done.
Someday when our heads are much lighter
Someday we’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun
Someday when the world is much brighter

 

Repeat as your heart desires…

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