Becoming Love Incarnate

A sermon preached on August 12, 2018, Proper 14 for St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston NY.  You can read the scriptures for the day by clicking here.

 

When Jesus talks about being the bread of life, what is he talking about?  It might be helpful to talk about what is life-giving, what is sustenance.  On today’s cover, 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer gives us a very simple, yet powerful image of sustenance in The Milkmaid.JVermeer The Milkmaid

A bare room with only subtle decoration at the bottom of the wall.  A narrow table under a window where daylight spills through.  A few baskets hanging on the walls, ready to be used.  A woman, a kitchen servant, dressed simply, is intently pouring milk into an earthenware vessel.  And bread overflows the basket that sits on the table.  The scene, although spare, has a sense of abundance to it.  It feels inviting, life-giving.

You may have noticed I have begun using a new invitation for Eucharist over the past few months:  Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.

But it’s not really new.  It’s a revival of one of the oldest invitations to Eucharist in the church.  It comes from St. Augustine, from one of his sermons written about Eucharist.  St Augustine of Hippo was a bishop in North Africa and the originator a problematic doctrine called Original Sin, which stated that human nature is inherently sinful.  At least, that’s how many people read it and how the church has used it to keep people, especially women, oppressed.

However, I read something a little different.  I don’t think Augustine really had such a dim view of humanity.  I think he loved people very much.  But I also think he understood just how lost we can become when we focus too much on the bread of the world instead of the bread of life.

In other words, when we spend our efforts trying to live up to the world’s standards… trying to live by our own self-will becoming the gods of our own lives, trying to get it all together and feeling shame for when we lose control of things, trying to manage everyone and everybody… because we think that is what will save us.

We learn from a very young age just how much of a risk it is to be vulnerable and so we stop doing it.  We keep vigilant and alert as we try to navigate the dangerous world and we seek to control rather than surrender, try to know rather than to ask.  So before long, we’ve forgotten how to open our heart, how to be our authentic self.  We forget how to stop managing the world and just let ourselves be, surrendered to God’s Will.

Yet, every week we’re called back:  “Lift up your hearts…” the invitation is offered before we begin.  And we respond, “We lift them up to the Lord.”

And as we say the Lord’s prayer before we partake we offer, “Your will be done… on earth as it is in heaven…”

The Table of Reconciliation is one of healing, you see.  For us.
To receive love so that we may become more loving.
To receive mercy so that we may become more merciful.
To receive grace so that we may become more grace-filled.

To open us up to receive what we are: the bread of life broken open for the world God has made.  To become Love incarnate.

Jesus said:  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.”  He says: “I am the living bread. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We think that the bread of the world, this manna, will save us… this striving that we do.  But it is the bread of life that is more nourishing because the bread of life is about love – about receiving love and giving love.  It is about becoming Love.

In his sermon that I mentioned earlier, Augustine says:St Augustine
What you see on God’s altar… is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter… My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit…

So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!

 It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith.

When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.”
Therefore, behold who you are; become what you receive…
(St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 272)

What we receive at this Table is mercy.
What we receive at this Table is hope.
What we receive at this Table is true freedom.
What we receive at this Table is Love.

In order that we may become: mercy, hope, freedom, love.  That we may become compassion.

We are reconciled to God in coming to the Table with our hearts lifted and open, ready to surrender our worldly fears and desires so that we might fully receive, might fully become what God would have us become – the Body of Christ, divine Love incarnate.

I was reading the Big Book this week on my Sabbath day.  The Big Book is another term for the Alcoholics Anonymous book, first published in 1935.  And, although there are some dated ways of saying things, the spiritual wisdom in that book remains unparalleled.

One line struck me in particular: “The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success.”

The wisdom in the realization that our worldly attempts, our anxiety, our insistence on seeking the worldly bread… whatever that looks like for us… our worldly attempts are often a thin veil for our fear, the fear that we aren’t enough, that something is wrong with us, that something is missing.

But nothing is further from the truth.

We are whole, beautiful, exquisite, beloved creations of God… just as we are.
God made creation and called it good.  God called us good!

When we give up the striving and the certainty and come to rest in our vulnerable, seemingly imperfect selves, we find such an abundance of love… that it overflows.  Just as the bread in that basket overflows in Vermeer’s painting.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told this story but my conversion experience was not about converting to Christianity.  It was about converting to God’s Love.
I was at a workshop with about 30 other people and we had been sharing and reflecting with such love and vulnerability that at the end, I experienced this moment of total freedom from self-judgment.  And when all that self-judgment was gone, in its absence, my only experience was of God’s Love filling me up.  So much so that it overflowed in tears that would not stop flowing.

Vermeer didn’t paint a scene with lots of finery and decoration, with meats and fish on a table filled with fancy plates and beautiful glassware.  He gave us a scene of simplicity that, because we have all we need… because we are all we need… it is already abundant.

The bread of the world keeps us striving for more. But the bread of life… in that we will never be hungry, never be thirsty.

In finally coming to rest in our own belovedness, we are able to live more compassionately as Paul implores in his letter to the Ephesian church:

“Do not let your anger stew so it will fester into resentment and revenge.  Encourage those who struggle to share with others.  Only say what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  Find ways of living without bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.  Forgive one another, as God has forgiven you through Christ.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, [our offertory sentence each week] and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  (Eph 4:25-5:2, paraphrased)

May we open our hearts.  May we rest in God’s Will.
May we become mercy, hope, and freedom.

In St. Augustine’s words: Behold who you are.  Become what you receive.

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Life Follows Where Love Leads

A sermon preached on July 22, 2018, Proper 11, at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY.  You can read today’s scripture by clicking here. 

We began today’s worship with the hymn – “In Christ there is no east or west… no south or north.”  Instead, there is a fellowship of love that extends beyond any borders or definitions that the world puts in place.

This isn’t a hymn about the institution of the church, which does go beyond borders.  This is a hymn about the fellowship of all of creation established in God’s unbounded love.  It’s a hymn about how, regardless of our human need to define and divide, Christ – God incarnate – dissolves all boundaries, not by force or aggression, but through love and compassion, through joy and hope.  Inviting all of us into abundant life.  Because life follows where love leads.

Today’s Gospel from the 6th chapter of Mark is a split reading.  If you’ll notice, we’re missing verses 35-52, which is quite a chunk.  Verses 30-34 is an invitation for the disciples to “come away” after the hard work of their ministry – the teaching and work that they had been doing after Jesus sent them out.

It says, “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”  And so they went away in a boat, crossing over the Sea of Galilee where Jesus finds a great crowd of people he didn’t know who seem to be desirous to learn.

Then, we skip over the story known as the Feeding of the Multitudes as well as the story where Jesus walks out to the disciples in their boat across raging waters at night.

And we jump to verse 53, when the disciples have finished their journey back from feeding the multitudes and they come to a place called Gennesaret.  A place where Jesus is known, and he and the disciples continue the work of healing.

Now, next week, Sue will preach on the Feeding of the Multitudes from John’s Gospel.  And, while it might make better sense for us to read the story in its entirety, I think the point the architects of the lectionary are trying to make is this:  Jesus teaches through action.  He takes his disciples (us) with him, as he crosses the boundary of the water over and over again throughout Mark.  He’s trying to teach them where life can be found.

Because in each place they land, the healing presence of Christ disregards the rules set by ignorance and suspicion and power, and demonstrates that the love of God invites all into life.  Even and especially, those of us who would erect walls and draw lines in the sand because we think these borders we create will save us.  But, in the end, the walls actually destroy life.EIshigo Boys with Kite

The image on today’s cover, is a water color by an artist named Estelle Ishigo.  Estelle was born in California in 1899. She married the son of Japanese immigrants, Arthur Ishigo in 1928. Thirteen years later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Estelle and Arthur lost their jobs after that and Arthur was forced into an internment camp in Wyoming.  Estelle followed him there and she painted as a way of documenting their imprisonment.  When they were finally released after the war, they lived in poverty for years.

The image, however, depicts something quite beyond the despair and hopelessness of their imprisonment due to Arthur’s Japanese heritage.

The title is appropriate: Boys with Kite.  There are 2 little boys, both in blue overalls, white t-shirts, and black shoes.  One is at the top of a barbed-wire fence, looking backward over his shoulder as he climbs the post.  And the other seems to be smaller, arms outstretched above his head as he stands on tip-toes, almost in a position of praise, as he holds up a bright yellow kite.

You can see a green valley beyond the brown hill the fence sits upon and you know that’s where they want to go.

The boys are clearly very taken with the idea of flying this kite, caring more about this than what the fence might mean. Indeed, they only see the fence as something in the way of flying their kite because they’ve discovered that the wind, the breath that will carry their kite, has no care at all about the fence.  So, quite naturally, they only want to follow the wind which will breathe life into their kite.

Like God, and like the wind, these boys don’t really care about the boundary.  Why would politics and borders mean anything to a child who wants to fly a kite?

I read an article yesterday about a young person named Jaequan Faulkner.  Jaequan is 13 and he’s been selling hot dogs in his Minneapolis neighborhood for 2 years as a way to help pay for school clothes.  He has since decided that he just likes doing it because of the community it creates and how he is a positive part of creating that life in his neighborhood.Jaequan

This summer, however, the city received a complaint about his makeshift hot dog stand, forcing the health department to investigate.  Even though his hot dog stand is directly in front of his own house.

Now, this could have been a situation in which the fences and boundaries drawn by human society were more important than the life generated by this young person.  They could have shut him down and shamed him.

Instead, the health department, not only helped step him through the process to get a license, but found a non-profit to cover the $87 and train him on some safe-food handling practices.

The people in authority could have used power to keep this young person in his place, binding him to the letter of the law.  Instead, people used their power to lift someone else, to empower a young person, to encourage someone who was outside the system.

Someone reached across the border and said, I’ll walk with you.  Life follows where love leads.

When Jesus invited the disciples on the trip across the water, he wasn’t planning another day of work.  Remember, Jesus was trying to call his disciples into prayer – a retreat in which they could rest and be refreshed because they had no time even to eat.

I think this is key to the point of the Gospel today because it’s the moment of scarcity.  The disciples are feeling depleted and it’s so easy in this moment to lose hope, to lose connection, to lose a sense of love and care for another.  It’s so easy to pull back and become self-centered.  This is the moment when it’s so much easier to keep fences in place and even erect new fences and walls and boundaries that weren’t there before.

But Jesus teaches us Christ’s compassion in this passage.

The compassion of Christ is one that is experiences as a response from the gut – like the phrase, “gut-response.”  Our gut usually tells us when we need to protect ourselves.  But Jesus helps us to understand that our gut also tells us when respond with action.  Christ’s compassion responds from the deepest place inside of us.  And life follows where love leads.

Do you remember what it was like to be a stranger or an outsider?  Were you ever the one left out?  Made-fun-of?  The one on the receiving end of prejudice?  Do you have a memory of being prevented from doing something simply because of who you are or what you look like or who you love?

Many of you have lived in Kingston for quite a long time so I wonder what your memories are of the experience of being an outsider.

I wonder because the compassion of Christ comes from that place, that deep place that remembers being the outcast.  And instead of responding in fear, the Christ presence inside of us responds with an outstretched hand that reaches across the border and says, “C’mon… I’ll walk with you.”

Jesus leads us beyond the borders we create and the fences we build because the breath of God doesn’t stop for either one.  Life follows where love leads.

Jesus asks us to get into the boat with him and cross over to the other side because he knows that life is always found on the other side.  Jesus opens his arms to welcome all because God will simply have it no other way.  All are welcome.  All are invited.

So, where are the fences in your life?  The places where you think you have to refuse someone else’s participation?  And how can you allow Christ’s compassion to lead you across those boundaries?Border Wall

Jesus stretches out his arms to all of God’s children.  I’ve said this before, but every time we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is always on the other side.  Not standing in judgment, but standing in invitation.  To us.

Jesus is on the other side, not because he takes sides.  But because he’s looking back at you with arms outstretched, asking you to tear down the wall you’ve built and let lose the compassion of Christ.

Jesus is on the other side, asking us to join him because that’s where love is, is where life is.  Where the breath of life blows the kites of young boys and hot dogs are sold to anyone who wants one and life is truly abundant and unbounded.

May we all accept his invitation and join him there.  Life follows where love leads.

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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.

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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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