Sunday, December 29, 2019

Christmas 1, 2019-A: A synergy of grace

Lectionary: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

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In today’s gospel, the evangelist speaks of the distinction between the law and grace: The law indeed was given through Moses; “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

The law of Moses was a gift from God that helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. The gift of God’s own self in Jesus guides us all on how to be: full of grace and truth.

People of all times and all places want to be set free from whatever is oppressing us in our lives. For some, the poverty, hunger, and prisons are real and actual. For others, they are perceived. They experience a poverty of joy or freedom, a hunger for meaning and purpose, prisons of anger, abuse, or addiction. Whether actual or perceived, oppression is real and the outcome is the same: it becomes what occupies our time and attention, and we spend our time surviving rather than living.

As many of you know, I worked in the field of victim advocacy for many years, specifically in the areas of domestic and sexual abuse. As a survivor myself, I can attest to how real this oppression is. I can also share with you how freedom enters this darkness as light.

But first, I want to share with you a paraphrase from a book I recently finished called, “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd. This book is a novel based on true events surrounding the lives of the Grimke sisters from Charleston, SC in the 19th century. Sarah and Angelina Grimke were the daughters of a land-owning, slave-owning judge in Charleston. Members of the elite social circles, the Grimke sisters left behind their privilege and even their religion; moving from being Anglicans to Presbyterians to Quakers as their first-hand experience of slavery led to an increasing intolerance of it. These women were eventually even expelled from the Quaker fold when they insisted that slaves not only be freed but given equal rights. In fact, they promoted equal rights for all people, including women, being among the first to write and speak publicly about women ‘s rights, influencing and sharing friendship with such notables as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

In the novel, Sarah Grimke is struggling against the gender discrimination of her time as she seeks to fulfill her life’s purpose, first as a lawyer, then as a Quaker minister - neither of which she accomplished. A slave girl named Handful, owned by the Grimke family, shares this wisdom with Sarah: “Mama said some of us are slaves in our bodies, others are slaves in our minds. I’m the first kind of slave, but you’re the other.” (paraphrased)

Whether our freedom is stolen by the circumstances of our lives or by our perception doesn’t matter. The end result is the same. Oppression kills the soul.

In every case, freedom happens in community. Freedom enters the darkness of oppression as a hand that reaches down into the darkness to grab and hold onto us and lift us into the light.

When we are set free from what oppresses us, it’s as if we can suddenly breathe deeply the sweet fragrance of life which fills and renews our bodies from the inside; and our vision expands opening before us a plethora of new and exciting possibilities and the courage to run into them.

This is what the writer of today’s gospel is describing: God’s own hand reaching down to us, holding onto us, and lifting us to new life. It’s what Jesus did and it’s what we’re called to do as well.

We have neighbors who are slaves in their bodies and others who are slaves in their minds, as Handful said. It is up to us to be Christ to them - to go into whatever darkness oppresses them and bring them the light of Christ that is in us as a gift from God, a gift given at our Baptism. To be able to do that without stomping further on their freedom (as so many Christians do nowadays) we must first be transformed ourselves.

In the novel, when Handful decided to run away, Sarah tried to stop her. Handful was determined, however, choosing to risk dying or 20 years imprisonment over being a slave for another second. Sarah’s response was classic and illustrates the subtlety of servant ministry. She asked, How can I be of help to you?

Evelyn Underhill was another voice in the 19th century - a mystic, pacifist, and writer who called upon all Christians to be mystics. (Mystic meaning someone who simply finds themselves, places themselves in the presence of God, in direct experience with God). Evelyn called everyone, all Christians, to be mystics. She believed that all Christians would benefit from entering into the presence of God and being transformed by God’s love because as she said, it isn’t just about us.

Underhill said, “As well as the solitude of my soul before God, there is the responsibility of my soul to my fellow-men, as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ… I must in some way show [the]… characteristics of Christ in my life… according to my special call. I am part of the organism through which Christ continues to live in the world.” (The Light of Christ, Morehouse-Barlow Co., p 15)

That is our goal as a community, a church. As you’ve heard me say many times, every church is an intentional action of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has unique gifts and God intentionally draws us into community, bringing these varied gifts together, creating a synergy of grace upon grace, and sending us to testify to the light by our lives and our service to the particular needs present in our corner of God’s garden.

To be able to do that, we must, as St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians, we must be transformed ourselves from slaves to daughters and sons of God. We must live the transformation we are called to share. If we are to show [the]… characteristics of Christ in our common life, according to our special call, we must be willing to let go of our plans and open ourselves to ask God and our neighbors: How can we be of help?

Some of you may not know it, but this is the transformed approach our Campus ministry team has taken this year. Rather than making a plan for campus ministry then going to the students at WCU and telling them what program we will offer them, the team went to the students and faculty and told them, “we’re a small church and we don’t have a lot of resources, but we want to use what we have to serve the students. How can we best do that?

Immediately a variety of important needs surfaced, some we could have guessed and some we couldn’t have. We began doing the little things we could do now while we move into the formal development of the program with diocesan support - little things like the exam bags and intentional invitations to the soup suppers where the students’ hunger for home-made food and warm hospitality have been satisfied. Now these same students want to help build the program with us as we proceed.

I hold up this ministry as an example of servanthood that reflects the characteristics of Christ and meets our responsibility as the mystical body of Christ in the world. As we heard in today’s gospel, the law of Moses helped the people of God know what to do (and not do) to be in right relationship with God and one another. But we are children of God, siblings of the Savior who guides us all on how to be, which then reveals to us what we can do.

It’s a tall order, and must be done in community because “being” rather than “doing” means staying flexible, welcoming change (of direction, thinking, and action), and tolerating a certain amount of uncertainty all the time. It means dying to self in order to follow Jesus, who has poured his light into us that it may shine from us into the world.

As we move into this new year, may God’s light shine brightly through us, bringing freedom to us and to all we serve in Christ’s name.


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Christmas, 2019-A: Our sacred story

Lectionary: Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14-20

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

This truly is the greatest story ever told - and it never gets old, does it? We hear about this intrepid family who guard the secret of a new life given to them by God in a most miraculous way. Our backs and bodies ache with very pregnant Mary as she rides for hours and hours on a donkey. We feel ourselves tense up with Joseph as he searches in vain for a safe place for his wife to deliver their baby. Time is running out and the lack of compassion they face is astounding!

If you’ve ever been a parent awaiting your baby’s delivery you know how anxious that time is. TV often depicts this moment with hilarity - people running around chaotically scrambling to get the pregnant mother to the hospital to deliver, often running out the door without the mother! It’s a nerve-wracking time, especially for first-time parents.

In our sacred story, Mary gives birth in less than ideal conditions: with no mid-wife and no women family to support, encourage, and watch out for her safety in the delivery. By the end of this adventure Joseph probably knows a whole lot more about child-birth than he ever dreamed he would!

But the new life has arrived and they are awestruck by it. There is a peace that passes understanding in this part of the story, a peace beautifully described in the hymn, Silent Night, which we will sing later in order to share in this deep, resounding, soulful peace.

This sacred story demonstrates for us the rhythm of the process of divine love: chaos transformed into peace.

If we move from what happened to those particular people on that particular night and look at it as a prototype for all humanity in all time, what we see is how God’s loving redemption plays out eternally.

The reality is people are ostracized – for lots of reasons. They are shunned by people who matter in their lives, left out in the cold to fend for themselves. In their powerlessness, they accept the derision directed at them, maybe because they learned to believe that they deserve it or maybe they know they don’t deserve it, but they aren’t going to change the minds of those who believe they do.

In this story, they focus on something bigger already happening: the birth of a new life. This new life for them has been conceived by God and is now ready to be made manifest. It will be so real they can see it, touch it, be awed by it; and others will too – because this new life will reveal the love of God in a whole new way.

It starts small, this new life. It’s as delicate and vulnerable as it is beautiful. The people given this new life know they’re going to have to tend to it for a long time before it comes into its fullness.

This means they have to commit to doing the little things, the everyday, homely, inglorious, things that will bring this new life to its fullness. Then, when it comes to its fullness, this new life, conceived by God, will have its effect.

For Mary and Joseph, that meant breastfeeding a crying baby Jesus, changing his dirty diapers, schlepping back and forth between Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth to keep him from being murdered by an insane, paranoid ruler, teaching him to be a carpenter, taking him to church, and watching his trial and execution. Through it all, the parents of our Savior had to deal with the continued shame of the rumors about how Mary really got pregnant - because, really, would we believe the story Mary and Joseph told if we heard it today?

For us, it means doing the menial spiritual and worldly work that feeds and nurtures the new life God is giving us. Practicing the disciplines of daily prayer and weekly corporate worship, participating in the councils of the church, being patient, loving, and hope-filled even as tensions rise and compassion seems absent, caring for our bodies as the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit.

It means suffering through the moments that are devastating, illogical, and totally unfair, knowing, as Mary and Joseph did, that God has a perfect plan of love and is working redemption even in what feels like a present darkness.

One of the reasons this story never gets old, I think, is because it is so deeply within us that we’re no longer listening the way we did as children - to the sacred story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. We’re listening now to the sacred story of all humankind and the birth of new life, redeeming life conceived by God, and brought to manifest reality through us.

This is the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ.

When people draw near to us, the parish of St. David’s, they are like the “shepherds,” those regular, hardworking, unpretentious folks in our sacred story who draw near to see and experience the Christ made manifest in our lives. Because I know what they’ll find here, I believe that they too will be amazed and give thanks to God; and they’ll run to tell others that this is not only possible but real and they know where to find it.

The new life, being conceived right now by God at St. David’s is about to become manifest through everyone here. Chaos is being transformed into deep, resounding, soulful peace as the Christ is being born and nurtured here in a whole new way.

Trust the process. Ours is the sacred story of the eternally happening birth of the Christ - and it is truly the greatest story ever told. Amen.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Advent 4, 2019-A: Our invitation to God

Lectionary: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

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I hate to break it to you, but do you realize we’ve just invited God to make daily visitations to us? In our Collect, we prayed: Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation…

In my experience and from what I read in Scripture, God doesn’t barge in uninvited. God’s love for us is way too respectful for that. But God does hear and answer prayer, and since we’ve all just asked God to visit us daily, we believe that God will do it. Our task now is to notice when God shows up and notice what happens, in us and in the world, as a result - because something will surely happen! Are you ready for it?

Here’s an example of what happens when God makes visitations: the Angel Gabriel is sent to ask Mary if she would bear the Christ to the world. She could have said no, but in the presence of heaven broken through to earth, in the presence of the overwhelming love, affirmation, and care of God, how could anyone want to say no?

In today’s gospel, God visits Joseph in a dream, calls him by name, and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, that she has been faithful to him. The child she is carrying was from the Holy Spirit, as had been prophesied.

Joseph could have said no. But in the presence of God who speaks to him in a dream, calls him by name, and quotes Scripture to him, how hard would it have been for Joseph to say, No, God. This isn’t for me.

The experience of a single visitation from God, much less a daily one, would be so powerful, so exiting, so motivating that anything would seem possible, any risk worth taking, any price worth paying because the Creator of the universe is there with you.

The price Joseph was being asked to pay was huge. He was being asked to receive into his home and his care one whom society insists “good people” should reject. Nobody around their tiny town would know that Mary came up pregnant by the Holy Spirit. They’d have done what folks usually do – put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to them.

Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not living together yet and Mary turns up pregnant. The obvious conclusion is that someone besides Joseph got to her. Since the Holy Spirit isn’t an obvious first choice for explanation, the one that fits is that it was some other man – making Mary an adulterer and Joseph a fool.

The law gave Joseph the right to have Mary stoned to death for being adulterous. He must have been a really sweet guy, though, because his inclination was to just “dismiss her quietly,” and dissolve their marriage contract. That would have spared Mary’s life, but it also would have destined her and her child to a lifetime of poverty, and shame.

In order to take Mary who is pregnant into his care, Joseph has to put his own reputation aside because a man with an unfaithful wife would have been openly scorned by the “good people” in his village. Yet, when Joseph awoke from his sleep, “he did as the angel of God [had] commanded him.” He walked forward in faith, letting go of his own plan for his future. Joseph willingly sacrificed his reputation and committed to quietly endure whatever judgments were made against him by his own friends, family, and community.

Joseph could have said to himself, ‘God doesn’t speak to someone like me.’ Or he might have reasoned that God wouldn’t ask him to violate the laws God gave his people. He could have written off the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion. But he doesn’t. When he awakens, Joseph does as he was commanded to do – as strange and uncomfortable as that was.

Joseph continued living quietly as he had done before. He married Mary and raised Jesus as his own son.

Joseph couldn’t have known how God would redeem all of this for him, he simply trusted in God, recognizing that there was a much bigger plan in play and his concerns about his own and Mary’s reputations just didn’t matter much anymore because God was being made known in a new way and Joseph was asked to help make it so. Joseph’s ‘yes’ to God was just as important in bearing the light of Christ to the world as Mary’s ‘yes’ to God was. That’s an honor that far outweighs any earthly judgments or achievements, which suddenly seem so small and inconsequential.

Joseph’s willingness to respond to God’s visitation to him stands in sharp contrast to Ahaz in the story from Isaiah. Ahaz clings so tightly to the law in Deuteronomy (the one that says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” 6:6) that he can’t release his grip on what he believes and what he’s always done, even when God asks it of him. In this story, God is ready to act. God is asking Ahaz to open a new way for God to be made known, but Ahaz just can’t do it.

We’re not so different from Ahaz sometimes. We often cling to what we feel comfortable believing and doing.

Yet, God continues to visit us and call us out of our sense of comfort, beyond what we think, believe and usually do, into new ways of living in holiness and righteousness. Any church in transition can attest to that, right?

Daily visitations from God will most assuredly lead us to discover ever new ways of making God known in the world, but we must be willing to be like Joseph and walk forward in faith, letting go our own plans for the future, and committing to do what God asks of us, even when there may be a price to pay for it.

As a community we asked God today to purify our conscience, that is to make us one with the inner voice in us which guides us forward – the voice of the Spirit of God who dwells in us. This voice of God within our community leads us forward in the way we are meant to go. This voice bears the command Jesus gave us after his resurrection and before his ascension: bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to all nations and peoples. We do this by living our lives in such a way that everyone we meet has the opportunity to hear the Good News, see the living God in us, and come to believe.

St. Paul tells us that we have been prepared to do this, having received grace and apostleship from Jesus Christ in order to make God known to all. This is the Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop calls it, and as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, we are by definition a gathering of apostles – a people who are sent on a mission.

Did you know that our official name of the Episcopal Church, our legal name, is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society? Our continuing mission is to use everything we’ve been given and risk everything we have, so that God can be made known and God’s love can be made manifest through us in new and unprecedented ways.

As we practice our last week of Advent together, I pray that we will listen faithfully and fearlessly to the voice of God within us and respond as Joseph did, with our “yes” as strange and uncomfortable as the path ahead may seem, whatever the price to be paid.


Sunday, December 15, 2019

Advent 3, 2019-A: The God of Mary

Lectionary: Isaiah 35:1-10, Canticle 15; James 5:7-10; Matthew 11:2-11

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Ever since I was a child, I have been profoundly moved by the Magnificat, Mary’s proclamation of her understanding of God. Her words gave me confidence to believe as she did, to hope as she did, and to rejoice as she did – even knowing the way her story as the God-bearer played out in her life.

The theology in Mary’s Magnificat is what she taught and modeled for her son. Think about that. It isn’t possible to characterize the utterer of these words as meek, mild, or servile as she is so often portrayed in Christian art and music. Mary was amazingly strong. She knew who the child she was bearing into the world was and the cataclysmic effect his presence would have. She knew and rejoiced in it, proclaiming the greatness of God for it.

The God of Mary is merciful and just, strong and tender, and very present. Mary’s song of praise, like Hannah’s before her, not only celebrates but also prioritizes that God looks with favor on the lowly and breaks down the mighty who oppress them, giving hope to the hopeless from generation to generation. This merciful action of God isn’t just to free the oppressed but also the oppressor, whose delusion of personal power impedes their ability to be in harmonious relationship with God and neighbor. God’s plan of reconciling love is for all.

Have you heard about the continuing controversy over a song that comes up each Advent and Christmas season? The song is “Mary Did You Know?” by Pentatonix. It a beautiful song with admittedly poor theology, if you take the lyrics literally anyway. The answer to the question is: of course Mary knew. But this song isn’t church doctrine – it’s a poem that reflects on the very human experience of encountering God in Jesus; of being a God-bearer in a world that rejects the notion of Emmanuel.

A quick review of the online comments shows that the song successfully reaches beyond the thoughts of many people about God into their experience of God. I know when I first heard it, the beauty of it gave me the chills. I had a similar response the first time I heard “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. In fact, every time I hear that aria it reaches to some place deep inside of me and I share the emotional power of the song – even though the lyrics are in Italian (which I don’t speak).

And isn’t that what art does? It’s a vehicle that gives shape, form, color, and sound to shared human experience and offers a gateway to something bigger than us, bigger than now.

This song is art in musical form, much like Dante’s Divine Comedy is art in literary form. Sadly, many people forget that Dante’s interpretation isn’t church doctrine or theological truth. I wonder if he had haters in his time too.

No one would interpret an icon to be a photographic image of the holy ones depicted – not anymore anyway. They are windows into an experience of the divine, enabling us to connect prayerfully with God.

The song, “Mary did you know?” speaks of the details of the ways Mary’s child would live out his divine purpose and identity: walking on water, giving sight to the blind, calming a storm – and no, she couldn’t have known those. At the same time, the song proclaims important truth about who Jesus is as the Christ using simple, homely words and images. For example, the song asks, did you know the child that you delivered would soon deliver you? Did you know the sleeping child you're holding is the great I AM? The movement is back and forth between the humanity and divinity of Jesus – a mystery most of us struggle to understand all our lives – leading us into the dynamic nature of that mystery where we ultimately surrender to the experience of it and let go trying to “know” and understand it.

Like Mary, most parents know that their child will have an effect on the world. They can’t know the details of the ways their child will live out their divine purpose, but they know the world will be different somehow because of them and they know their role as parent is to help their child live into their divine purpose whatever the cost. In this way, Mary is very relatable.

This, by the way, is also the role of the church – to encourage and empower everyone to live into their divine purpose. When I was a teenager, I heard a Catholic nun ask, “What if everyone treated their child as the son or daughter of God?” Her question has continued to resonate in me ever since. What if people in church treated everyone as a child of God…

Mary is also a human, like we are. She isn’t important or powerful or well educated. What connects us is that Mary epitomizes the lowly whom God lifts up in her hymn of praise. In today’s world, there are so many people, invisible for the most part, who have been wounded by the church or people or events in their lives who quietly wonder where God was when they were suffering. Some are angry, feeling abandoned by God, and afraid of God’s response to their anger. Some are afraid because they believe they are too unworthy to receive the promises God made to everyone else.

Mary’s Magnificat assures us that God’s response to all of that is mercy. The song reminds us what that mercy looked like – the great I AM asleep in the arms of his lowly mother.

The song asks when Mother Mary kisses her child, does she know she is kissing the face of God? What was it like for Mary to gaze upon the face of her child – God’s child – God Incarnate? What is it like for us now as we prepare for the coming of the Christ child again at Christmas?

Emmanuel, God with us, is an important truth easily lost in present-day human systems that focus on Jesus’ divinity and skim over or ignore his humanity. But it’s the fact of Jesus’ humanity reconciled to his divinity, the Incarnation, that is our hope, our joy, and our salvation. Focusing on Jesus’ divinity alone also relieves us of our responsibility to be God-bearers in the world today, which is why so many in the church do that, but Emmanuel isn’t something that happened once long ago. It’s something that is happening eternally and in our very human bodies right now.

The song, much like today’s reading from Isaiah reaches its crescendo with descriptions of how human experience will be transformed by the love of God: the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again. The lame will leap, the dumb will speak the praises of the lamb…

Mary, did you know? Yes, she knew then, just as we know now.

We know who the Christ child is and what his coming birth means for the world. We can’t know the details of the ways the eternal Christ will live out his divine purpose and identity in our time, but we do know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

To advance rather than inhibit that process, we strive together to heed the gentle reminder from Jesus’ brother, James, who encourages us to be patient as the farmer who awaits the precious crop from the earth is patient. The Christ is coming. The Christ is always coming.

Even John the Baptist, who knew Jesus his whole life, didn’t know the details of the ways the Christ would live out his divine purpose and identity. John’s entire life and ministry had been about preparing the way for the Christ, the Anointed One, but Jesus’ ministry didn’t fit John’s messianic expectations, so in the end, he had to ask: “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus, in his divine mercy and very human love for John, responds with, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” assuring John that he has faithfully completed his divine purpose on earth. Then Jesus sang the praises of his cradle-mate and kin, his childhood friend and precursor, using his love of John to demonstrate the love of God for all: No one born of woman is greater than John the Baptist yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

This is the God Mary described in her Magnificat, so yes, she knew. This is the God we proclaim, so yes, we know too, and even though our sin, which divides us, sorely hinders us, we know that mercy, healing, wholeness, harmony, and peace will happen in ways we’ve never dreamed.

God promised it. Jesus delivered it. We proclaim it. Alleluia!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Advent 2: Peace in believing

Lectionary: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

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En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

As a pastor and a spiritual director, I have the privilege of being invited into conversations with people when their faith is being challenged, or they’re experiencing a “dark night” where they feel no sense of the presence of God in their lives. Some are seeking faithfully to discern God’s path for this moment in their lives. Others are trying to stay faithful, having made a decision based on that discernment, but now things have gone array and they’re wondering if they’d made the right choice.

In all of these conversations, what is foundational is the person’s relationship with God. Who is God to each of these? How do they relate to God and how does God relate to them in particular and to all of us as the created?

Whatever religious doctrines or practices or theology we have, when life is challenging, it’s our belief in and relationship with God that carry us through. Some of us who grew up in the church learned how to understand and relate to God in certain “acceptable” ways. Others among us either didn’t grow up in the church or grew up being taught awful, sometimes unfaithful doctrines that continue to affect how we relate to God. Still, others have had personal, mystical experiences leading to an intimate, convincing relationship with God.

What I’ve noticed is that the challenging moments of our lives often affect our belief in God. I think of medieval mystic Julian of Norwich whose physical challenges led her into an experience of God that completely transformed her believing, and therefore how she related to God, leading her to her famous description of Christ the Mother of Mercy and her equally famous proclamation that “God is not wroth” which she clarifies by saying that wrath is found in humans, but not in God who loves us mercifully, tenderly, and completely.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul is encouraging the members of the new church in Rome to relate to one another differently: to live in peace and harmony. Jews and Gentiles, Roman occupiers and those they occupied are now members of a new community of faith. The Scriptures, he reminds them, foretold that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed through the Jews, but that it would reach all nations and peoples – and that habitual enemies would live together in peace and harmony.

This is what we heard described in the reading from Isaiah. The coming of the king will signal the inauguration of a time of profound peace born of right relationship. In this new era, the peace and harmony will be so deep, so complete that even natural enemies will share cooperative, peaceful lives.

Looking around then and now, this seems like a dim possibility, but our belief assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. So Paul exhorts the church in Rome to continue to hope and believe praying this beautiful blessing over them: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Peace in believing…

If we believe that God is just and kind, full of compassion and mercy, that God cares for those who suffer and hears their prayers, that God’s love for us is steadfast and sacrificial, then even when things have gone array, we can have peace in our believing. Even when the world has gone wrong, our belief that God chooses to be in loving, sustaining relationship with us will sustain our hope.

What gets in our way is sin, but that word is so variously defined. How do we understand it?

I suggest that sin is what disrupts the harmony of being. In his book, “The Shaking of the Foundations,” theologian Paul Tillich describes sin as a three-fold separation: from God, from each other, and from ourselves. This separation, which is caused by the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, distorts all of our relationships. It is only by God’s grace and our willingness to repent that we are reconciled and restored to righteousness, that is, to right relationship.

This is the kind of repentance John the Baptist is calling the people to in today’s gospel. John is proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is coming near and they need to repent so that they can recognize and receive the grace about to come in the one who would come after him, the one who is more powerful than he, the one who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire.

And the people were flocking to John to hear his teaching and to be purified by his baptism. They wanted what he was offering – a new way of being in relationship with God and each other.

Even the religious authorities were coming, but when they arrive, John doesn’t mince words with them. Imagine what the response might be if I called visiting Canons or Bishops, who show up for worship, a “brood of vipers.”

Why was he so caustic with them? We can’t be sure if the Pharisees and Sadducees came to observe what John was doing in order to prepare an “official response” or if they were, like the many others, coming to him drawn by the message of this new way of being. My guess is, it was probably a bit of both.

John’s prophetic teachings used apocalyptic language familiar to the listeners of the day. We have taken them to be punitive, but they really are promising and uplifting. Otherwise, why would so many flock to hear him?

The scariest thing John says in this gospel is probably this: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So let’s look at it more deeply.

The Messiah is coming to judge the world. The winnowing fork enables him to separate fruit that is ready to be used, from the chaff which isn’t useful in its present form. Chaff is a natural by-product of the whole process, however, and of itself isn’t bad. It just isn’t useful in its present form so it is burned.

The habitual association with hell-fire and eternal punishment often clouds our thinking on this, but John says the chaff will be burned in “unquenchable fire.”

As we’ve discussed before, fire is biblical language for the presence of God. Think of the burning bush and of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize them with fire. God’s steadfast love and mercy cannot be quenched by us or anything we do. In God, whose mercy endures forever, all who aren’t ready in their present form will be made new by the unrelenting presence and love of God.

We sin. That doesn’t make us bad – just human. Advent calls us to own that and repent, trusting that God loves us and desires to restore us to right relationship. When we choose to repent, we may find ourselves “struck by grace,” as Tillich says, the way St. Paul was on the road to Damascus, knowing deeply the truth that God loves us with an incomprehensible love...”

Repentance opens the way for all of our relationships to be changed, empowered by the grace of God’s unquenchable love. Trusting in the steadfast love of God who is always faithful, we can choose to repent in the way John the Baptist taught and change the way we’re in relationship with God and with one another. Then we can live together in peace and harmony in a way that is otherwise impossible and we will have in ourselves peace in our believing. Amen.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent 1, 2019-A: Christ is always coming

Lectionary: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

Note: If the above player doesn't work for you, click HERE for an mp3 format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Those who know me well, know that one of my all-time favorite movies is
“My Cousin Vinny.”

The character in it known as Mona Lisa Vito is a she-ro for me. I love her tell-it-like-it-is, loving yet hard-edged character. She’s devoted to her fiancĂ©, is not easily pushed around, is unimpressed by worldly power, is smart yet humble about it, and knows what she wants – a traditional life of love and family.

There’s one scene in this movie where Mona Lisa is being questioned by the District Attorney who wants to discredit her as an expert witness in the area of “general automotive knowledge” so he asks her a question about the correct ignition timing for a specific make of car in a specific year.

Mona Lisa dismisses his question in her characteristic hard-edged, smart but humble manner – with an expletive. “It’s a BS question” she says. Pressed by the DA who thinks he is about to discredit her for not knowing the answer, Mona Lisa testifies that the question is impossible to answer. “Nobody could answer that question.” Then she proceeds to blow the DA and the courtroom away by offering an answer that corrects the error in the DA’s question AND demonstrates her astounding expertise in general automotive knowledge.

I always think of this scene in that movie when today’s gospel reading comes up. Jesus has been teaching his disciples about the destruction of the temple, referring to both the building in Jerusalem where worship happened and also his body – the temple of the Holy Spirit of God.

The disciples ask a reasonable question: “Tell us, when will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” Using apocalyptic language familiar to his listeners, Jesus harkens back to the message in Isaiah where God is about to do a new thing, to inaugurate a new way of being in the world.

Then pointing to the last covenant God made with the people, the covenant of Noah, Jesus says it will be like that… people will go about living their daily lives, completely unaware that a momentous occasion is about to happen. God is inviting the world into a new way of being and so much of life as they know it is about to be destroyed.

Only Noah and his family, who are awakened to this invitation, will be “left behind” to begin the new era and carry life into this new world. Likewise, only those in Jesus’ time who are awakened to this invitation will be “left behind” to carry life into the new world being inaugurated. And today, we who are awakened to this invitation bring new life into the world today – a world, which includes us, that is replete with darkness in need of the transforming light of Christ.

In response to the disciples’ question, Jesus offers the Mona Lisa Vito answer: It’s impossible to answer this question. No one could answer it. Not even the Son of Man.

Why? Because there is a fatal error in the question. Try as we might, we can’t pin God down to a moment, a day, or even a millennium because Jesus’ second coming is happening now. Jesus promised not to leave us orphaned after his resurrection and ascension. He then breathed his Spirit into humanity eternally uniting himself to us, and sending us forth to share this invitation for a new way of being in the world.

This is the unexpected new thing God did in Jesus: inaugurating a new age where the divine Spirit of Christ dwells in the mortal bodies of each of us, and in all of us as the body of Christ. The transformation of the darkness of the world is happening now by the armor of light that covers, protects, and shines forth from us.

This is the hope Advent calls us to remember and ponder and now is the time for us to awaken to this new thing already happening in us and through us. The spirit of Christ has been given to us as a gift from God, breathed into us as it was into the disciples on that first Pentecost. Are we awake to the astonishing nature of that gift? Are we sharing it as Christ bid us to do?

The light that has been given to us shines on the darkness in our own hearts and souls as well as that of the world. We are mistaken if we believe that being temples of Christ’s spirit rids us of our own inner darkness. It doesn’t. It illuminates it for us so that we can see it and choose to let go whatever anger, resentment, control, pride. or fear is within us that leads us to hinder God’s plan for us, for our parish, or for the corner of God’s garden we inhabit.

The light that has been given to us illumines the dark memories that cast a shadow over our current thinking, setting us free to be whom God made us to be in all our fullness. The light of Christ in us shows us the way to forgiveness, to wholeness, to holiness.

If we choose to now, we can enter this amazing and troubling season with hope… the expectation that when we go to the dark places within us, within our community, and in the world, we will trust the light of Christ to illumine it, and follow the path of new life that is revealed in that light.

This won’t just happen for us because we’re Episcopalians in the season of Advent. The preparation we do, and the transformation it offers, will be a direct result of the intentional effort we give it.

Noah had to build an ark, a vessel to carry him into the transforming work of God. During Advent we, too, build a vessel to carry us there. Our vessel may be built using a daily meditation like “The AdventWord online series, or a prayer discipline like praying regularly with the icons I set up in the upstairs parish hall, or coloring an Advent calendar (I can hook you up to several resources) or perhaps you prefer a book (I have a couple of references I can offer).

Whatever the method, building the ark is our part of the deal. We do the work, even when the world mocks us and goes on about its business oblivious to God’s invitation for transformation.

As we proclaimed at the lighting of the candle for this first Sunday in Advent, “Christ is coming. Christ is always coming… always entering a troubled world, a wounded heart.”

Let us pray.

Give us grace, Eternal God, to prepare ourselves to answer your invitation to new life. Like Noah, we will use this season of Advent to build our arks, certain that you will lead us through whatever darkness exists in ourselves, our community, or our world into new life. By your redeeming love, transform us and make us ready to be sent forth as bearers of your light, temples of your Holy Spirit, and sharers of your holiness. Amen.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ the King, 2019-C: The tender compassion of God

Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Canticle 16; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

Note: If the above player doesn't work for you, click HERE for an mp3 audio format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Our current book study is on Richard Rohr’s “The Universal Christ” and it continues to be amazingly inspiring. We invite you to join us after coffee hour today. Each week, some have read the text, some have not. What matters is that God raises up from the book a topic which launches us into discussion. Then we follow the path of that discussion where it leads. It’s been a very holy experience.

One of the early topics in these conversations was Rohr’s discussion of the “ubiquitous Christ,” which he describes like this: “Everything visible, without exception, is the outpouring of God… ‘Christ’ is the word for the ‘Primordial Template’ (Logos) through whom ‘all things came into being…” (p. 13)

We affirm this each Sunday as we say the ancient words of the Nicene Creed: “Through him all things were made.” Rohr describes this as a “Christ soaked world” into which Jesus was born “so that humanity and divinity can be seen to be operating as one in him – and therefore in us!” ( p. 15)

This is where we begin as we celebrate The Feast of Christ the King, what some are now calling The Reign of Christ” citing that “King” is too small a term for the “ubiquitous Christ.”

This also is what Paul was talking about in his beautiful prayer in today’s epistle about the “who” of Jesus as the Christ: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible,… -- all things have been created through him and for him.”

Paul goes on to discuss the “when” of Jesus as the Christ, reconciling the eternal and the temporal: “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. Paul continues with the “why” of Jesus as the Christ: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven” and concludes with the “how;” “by making peace through the blood of his cross.” God’s redeeming love, God’s continuing participation in human experience brings peace out of every instance of violence or hate or harm.

Such is the tender compassion of God which the prophet Zechariah speaks of in his prayer sung in response to the gift of his son, John the Baptist. Recounting the promises of God made through the prophets of old, Zechariah, a priest in the line of Aaron, celebrates that his son has been chosen to prepare the way for the fulfillment of these promises in the coming of the Messiah, whom we celebrate today: Jesus, the Christ.

What trips us up, I think, is our human construct of time and our desire for closure. We want things to work like a movie or a TV show where good overcomes evil and justice prevail by the end of the story.

That’s the problem – there is no end to this story. There is no time that the tender compassion of God isn’t at work in the world. It’s a continual process that has no beginning and no end – and that’s the beauty of it, the fulfillment of the promises made. Jesus was before all things and in him (who is eternal) all things are made worthy – all things, all people, all of the created world are embraced, held together, have existence in him.

When Zechariah set out John the Baptist’s divine purpose, he proclaimed ours too. We, my children, are prophets of the Most High. We will give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sin.

Sin separates us which leads to violence, hatred, and harm. Jesus, the Christ reunites us and makes us one again.

We believe that there is nothing that can separate us from this embrace of the Christ. Nothing. That is such good news to so many who feel lost, alone, and hopeless.

I saw a news story yesterday about a teacher in Oregon, Keanon Lowe, who stopped a student armed with an automatic rifle and thwarted a potential school shooting – with a hug. During the embrace, the student cried out that he felt alone, that no one cared about him. “I care about you,” was Keanon’s immediate reply.

"I felt compassion for him,” Keanon said, “A lot of times, especially when you're young, you don't realize what you're doing until it's over," he said.

The video brought tears to my eyes. This is the tender compassion of God in Christ, who said: Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

By our Baptism, we are all Keanon Lowe – or we could be if we, like him, allow God to use us to carry the light of God’s love to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. The overall interview showed Keanon to be a man of faith. It was already in him. He was prepared, so when the situation presented itself to him, Keanon said, "In a fraction of a second, I analyzed everything really fast. I saw the look in his face, look in his eyes, looked at the gun, realized it was a real gun and then my instincts just took over."

His instincts – his inclination and inner prompting were the means by which the Christ acted through him. He saw, really saw, the look in that student’s eyes and his response was that this young man, as dangerous as this moment was, needed and was worthy of love. So he gave it – he hugged him – and the crisis was ended. Through him, God brought peace from violence once again.

Every story could end this way. Every story. Wherever sin separates us Jesus, the Christ, who is in us, is ready to act through us to reunite us, to make us one, all of us held together in the embrace of his love. This is the practice and protocol of the reign of Christ.

One last thing about Keanon Lowe: he believed he was placed there in that moment to save that young boy. I believe that too because I believe that about all of us.

We are the means by which the redeeming love of God happens in the world. By our very presence and preparedness, we prepare the way for the Lord. We remind that world, by our words and actions, that we are all one, that we are all embraced, held together, and have our existence in Jesus who is the Christ, the eternal forgiver from the cross, restorer of all things, and reconciler of heaven and earth.

We must be willing, however, to notice sin – to notice when we are not one, where, how, and why we are separated. We must be willing to remember that we are imperfect vessels made perfect by God alone. We are imperfect communities enlightened by the Christ who dwells in us.

Then we can trust God in us and step into any place of darkness, any circumstance of separation, even when that darkness is happening within us, and allow the Christ to do what he always does, what the prophets of old said he would do: set us free from all that separates us and guide our feet into the way of peace.


Sunday, November 17, 2019

Pentecost 23, 2019-C: A path to new life

Lectionary: Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for .mp3 audio format.

I’m not much of a TV watcher, but when I watch, I’m often more interested in the commercials than the shows, and not just at the Superbowl. To me, commercials offer fascinating commentary on culture. They expose our priorities, unmask (sometimes create) our fears, and propagate the illusion of our personal power.

The shows we choose to watch tell us a lot about what matters to our culture too. The most popular show on TV right now is The Walking Dead, a post-apocalyptic series in which regular people must survive attacks by walking dead bodies whose goal is to transform everyone else into walking dead bodies. How metaphoric is that?!?

The question this begs is: are we more than just our bodies? The deep fear in our culture seems to be that the worst possible outcome is that we could be reduced to bodies animated by death instead of life. I agree and I hear Jesus’ voice echoing: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6)

The cultural fallacy revealed by our “entertainment” habits is that we can mitigate our fears by preparing for the end of the world or life as we know it. We can make ourselves stronger, better armed, or even super-powered. We can hoard supplies and just wait out the apocalyptic moment hidden in a bunker somewhere. That’s what “Preppers” do. A New York Times article quotes a prepper store exec who said, “By prepping, “you’re actually alleviating fear.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon, though. Has there ever been a time in history when there were no plagues or famines, natural disasters, or wars? No. Neither, it seems, has there been a time in history when people weren’t trying to figure out how to survive an apocalypse.

Archeological evidence shows that there were some people in the ancient city of Pompeii, which was destroyed in 79 A.D., who tried to hoard food and survival supplies in an attempt to survive the impending volcanic eruption, but their preparations were no match for the power of Mount Vesuvius.

The only way to calm this fear is to stay close to God, the Giver of the breath of life.

The Jews in the first century saw their temple destroyed and church as they knew it was ended – but the Jewish faith continued (h/t to Rev. Rob Field for this comment). The disciples saw their long-awaited Redeemer executed, and what seemed like the end was, in fact, only the beginning. It was the divine plan in action, the redeeming love of God at work in the world.

In today’s readings, both Jesus and Paul address this. Jesus says, when you see these dreadful events, “Do not be terrified... the end will not follow immediately.” And Paul urges the church in Thessalonica, who had been waiting for the second coming that never happened, not to be idle – not to sit back and just wait for the end to come. There is work to do in the now. People are suffering. “Do not weary in doing what is right,” Paul says.

When “the end” is, you see, isn’t our concern. Our role, as Christians, is not to escape the dreadful events in the world, but to enter them, carrying in the Spirit of Christ who dwells in us, bringing relief to the suffering, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and comfort to the frightened, lonely, orphaned, or those in times of trial.

As he addresses his disciples’ fear, I think Jesus knows what lies ahead for them, not because of any divine knowledge but because he can see where the road ahead of them is leading. What the powers of the church and world are about to do to him, they also will do to his followers.

So he exhorts them to trust God and surrender to the Spirit when that happens. Don’t prepare your defense, he says. Let me speak it through you, for “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

Let’s not let that amazing statement pass by unexamined. Jesus is promising that HE will give them the words they should use AFTER he has been killed. Did they wonder how he would do that? Do we?

That statement confirms God’s redeeming work fulfilled in Jesus who gave his Spirit to us. Jesus’ Spirit now lives in us, speaks for us, and acts through us. When we surrender our need to judge, to escape suffering, and to survive, and choose instead to trust in the redeeming love of God, we find life, hope, and true super-hero style strength. I think of saints like Peter, Paul, Catherine of Sienna, Gandhi, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr, Thomas Cranmer, and Corrie Ten Boom – to name just a few.

The end of anything is not something we dread or avoid or prepare to survive. It is for us, the revelation of a path to new life. Our reading from Isaiah shows us that God has been bringing new life from death for a long time.

At the end of this gospel reading, Jesus makes yet another amazing statement: “By your endurance you will gain your souls." This is often taken to mean that when we suffer we “earn” our salvation, but that isn’t what Jesus is saying. Jesus never said stuff like that.

Jesus is saying that when we are suffering, if we wait in the discomfort we will awaken to the fact of the presence of God within us. When that happens we become fully ourselves, human bodies housing the divine spirit. Then there is no circumstance, not even death, that has power over our ability to live; for we live and breathe in communion with God, according to the will and plan of God.

What we are witnessing in the larger Church, and what we are living in this particular church, is the redeeming love of God at work. It may feel like an end of something is coming, but it isn’t.

As Corrie ten Boom once said, “…I know that …memories are the key not to the past, but to the future. I know that the experiences of our lives, when we let God use them, become the mysterious and perfect preparation for the work he will give us to do.”

Our own history at St. David’s affirms that. We are a resurrection church. We have died and been reborn once already. God clearly has a plan for us and breathes life into us, and so we have nothing to fear.

We can, therefore, let go of our desired outcomes, be undistracted by fear, and choose instead to be awake, aware, and alive in the present moment which is a gift from God, taking each step as it comes, trusting that God is guiding us on a path that leads only to life.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Pentecost 22, 2019-C: A broader perspective

Lectionary: Haggai 1:15b-29; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

Note: If the above player doesn't work, click HERE for .mp3 audio format.

En el nombre del Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

Have you ever been in a situation where your whole life blew up on you? Maybe a spouse or parent or spiritual mentor died. Or maybe your child died – in utero or in the world. Maybe you were betrayed by someone you loved and trusted. Maybe you were arrested for drunk driving or possession of something illegal. Maybe someone you know was killed or war happened in your homeland. There are so many ways we experience life blowing up on us.

Our reading from Haggai speaks to this directly, offering a broader perspective. In this story, the first exiles are returning from Babylon to Judah and see that everything they knew about their life there had been destroyed. They were heartbroken, lost, and afraid.

That’s how it feels when our life blows up on us.

The prophet proclaims to the people God’s response to how they feel. God says, “take courage” three times, then makes that very familiar promise: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.”

Then God says something that should catch our attention: “the silver is mine, and the gold is mine.” When I read this my brain is jolted out of my usual perspective of this world and the other and I remember the truth of their co-existence in God.

Then and now, we work for silver and gold and treat it as if it’s ours. My income, my pension, my house… This is what Jesus is addressing in today’s gospel from Luke: the co-existence of earth and heaven in God.

In this story, some Sadducees ask Jesus about a confusing detail: what happens in the next life to a woman who marries her husband’s brother according to the law? It’s a fair question. According to the law in Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), the levirate marriage (the marriage of a widow to her husband’s living brother) was an important pastoral move on the part of the Jewish people. It ensured that the widow, who was her husband’s property, would not end up alone and impoverished and that the man’s heirs, unborn as yet, would not lose their inheritance. In addition, the dead man’s posterity, his name would, as a result of the marriage, not be lost.

It’s important to note that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection since it was not in the Torah. The Pharisees did, so there was an element of deceit in the question in that they were hoping to force Jesus to pick a side. If Jesus aligned with either side, the other could move against him and stop him.

Jesus, however, lived, embodied, and taught about the co-existence of this earth and heaven in the unity and oneness of God. In this world, he said, you marry and have children. In the other, you are all children of God. There is no need to protect widows and heirs. There is no need to be concerned about property or posterity.

But as a quick nod to those Sadducees who hold to their Scripture as the only authority on truth, Jesus points out that this is, in fact, in the Torah, if they had eyes to see and hearts to understand. Reminding them of the story of Moses where God spoke of being in relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who were long dead on earth, but clearly alive and with God in heaven, Jesus offers a broader perspective without picking a side. He just changed the playing field, reconciling life in this world and in the other in God once again, saying that to God, “all of them are alive.”

This is where St. Paul picks up the discussion in his letter to the church in Thessalonica. Everyone was waiting for the Day of the Lord when Christ would come again, end this world once and for all, and bring all the good and faithful people to heaven while casting the rest into eternal punishment.

But Paul offers them a broader perspective. The day of the Lord is already here, he says. It’s an astounding short phrase that Christians throughout history seem to overlook. That day has come. Christ has come again by coming into us, dwelling is in us. We are the first fruits of salvation. Hear that again: we are the first fruits of salvation, and we have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit and called to proclaim our Good News.

The rebellion and lawlessness revealed on earth would be necessary first so that we, the first fruits of salvation, could know where the one destined for destruction was so that we could carry our light, the light of Christ in us there, and open the way for reconciliation. For God desires the reconciliation of all, not just some.

Jesus told us over and over that he came to reconcile the whole world to God; to reconnect all who have been exiled, to re-member all who have been cut off, reclaim all to have been lost. The second coming of Christ is in process; it’s happening now, through us who have his spirit in us. We are called to continue his work of reconciliation and bear more fruit of salvation in his name.

As our bishop said in his convention sermon: there is spiritual hunger in this world. The world is hungry for what we have. Then he asked, “Where do we find opportunities to bear fruit and be people of healing, reconciliation, and justice-making? Well, when we ask that question, we're a bit like that little fish that would swim up to other fish and ask, "where's the ocean? Where's the ocean?" Finally, one of the other fish said, "what do you mean, 'where's the ocean?'" And the little fish said, "I'm looking for the ocean -- but all I see around me is water..."

So how do we do this? How do we proclaim the Good News we know?

Well… we discussed this too at our diocesan convention this weekend! Stephanie Spellers, who serves as the Canon for Evangelism and Reconciliation, offered us information and, more importantly, processes we can use to practice this together. So, I’m going to do as she suggested, and add of her exercises to my preaching today.

Exercise of the great meal memory. Find a partner. Determine who is Partner A and B. B goes first. Stop and think of a wonderful meal you’ve had ever or recently. Then tell your partner (30 seconds). Partner B goes first. (pause) Now Partner A - do it again.

How did that go? Were you able to recognize the presence of God in the story you heard? In the story you told?

(Invite sharing)

That’s evangelism the Episcopal way, and you’ve practiced it twice already.

That’s how we do this. That’s how we proclaim the Good News we know. No Bible-thumping required. No Bible verse wars. No intrusion into someone’s wound or yanking the foundation on which they stand.

The Good News we have to share is that the spirit of God dwells among us, in each of us, in all of us. The more we practice having eyes to see and hearts to understand that, the more we broaden our perspectives, the better we can recognize and share those moments. God, to whom all are alive, all are worthy, all are beloved, does the rest. Amen.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

All Saints Day, 2019: A plan of love

Lectionary: Daniel 7: 1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1: 11-23; Luke 6: 20-31

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for .mp3 format.

En el nombre del Dios: creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen.

The early church considered a saint to be anyone who believed that Jesus is the Christ. We still do. That’s why the Saints we remembered today in our Litany today include Catholics and Protestants, civil rights advocates, medieval mystics, military generals, and peace activists. They are lay and ordained, women and men: they are all of us.

As Episcopalians, we don’t hold sainthood and heaven to be things we achieve after our death. For us, these are both eternal and present realities.

The communion of saints, something we profess to believe in each time we say our Creeds together, includes all those who were, who are, and who are to come who believe that God’s promise of salvation has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The work of the saints is to proclaim by word and example this good news to the world and to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation until he comes again.

The Catechism in our Prayer Book, says that “the communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.” (BCP, 862) Our unity in Christ brings down every boundary that separates us, even the boundary between life and death.

It boggles the mind, but as we saw in the gospel reading today, those beautiful and challenging Beatitudes, when Jesus taught he tended to boggle the mind, turning everything inside out and upside down. Jesus embodied his teachings too, showing us how – in real life – one can do good to those who hate us, pray for those who abuse us, withhold nothing from anyone, and turn the other cheek. These aren’t metaphors for Jesus – or for us. They are a way of being in the world.

Those of you who follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram saw that Steve and I went to see Les Miserables last week. It’s one of our favorite modern operas. The story is powerful and the music brings the message deep into your soul. In that play, the law and order policeman, Javer, is a dedicated protector of the law and carries out his work as a duty to God. But Javer is completely undone when a man he has judged to be a worthless criminal, Jean Val-Jean, turns out to be the embodiment of Jesus’ teaching. Val-Jean was the faithful one, the saint.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author is praying for the believers at the nascent community of faith in Ephesus whom he calls the saints. He congratulates and blesses them in the work they are doing and prays that God will give them, over time, a spirit of wisdom and revelation. Then as they learn to look with the eyes of their hearts, that is, with a perspective informed by the divine presence in them, they will choose to and be empowered to act in the ways Jesus lived and taught.

Jesus exemplified his Beatitudes teaching in his life and in his death. At the end of his short ministry, Jesus could see – with the eyes of his heart - that both worldly and church powers were seeking to destroy him and his message, yet he stayed in relationship with them both. He gave to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and didn’t quit the church even when it behaved very badly and acted in ways he totally disagreed with; even when it conspired to destroy him. He responded to being stripped, beaten and tortured with meekness and patience. Then he prayed for the criminals who were crucified with him and with his last breath, he prayed for those who crucified him.

Since Jesus was looking at the circumstance of his life with the eyes of his heart, he was certain that the love of God would redeem – and it did. It always does.

That is the bottom line of our good news: God can and will redeem all things. All things. There is no power on earth, no power in the church that can interfere with God’s plan of love for the world.

That’s why we can trust God even when the news continually reports about the chaos, injustice, and suffering in the world. Looking with the eyes of our hearts we are empowered by the divine spirit within us to discern the ways we can act to bear the love of God in Christ into our chaotic, unjust, and suffering world.

It’s why we can trust God even when all the “experts” tell us that the church is dying. Death is, for us, simply the gateway to new life. Yes, the process will be painful and scary at times, but in God’s plan of love and endless mercy, all of that is transformed into redemption and reconciliation.

That’s why we can trust God even when our own community is transitioning into a new chapter of its life story. Bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise, we can be certain that God is using each painful, scary, joyful, and healing moment we share for our redemption and reconciliation.

God has a plan and it’s a plan of love. So, as the psalmist says, “Let the faithful rejoice” because ours is the kingdom – right here, right now. Ours is the promise that we will be filled beyond satisfaction and our joy will be complete.

Our work, as saints on earth, is to be in an ever-growing, ever-deepening relationship with God and with one another, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise in this mystical body we call St. David’s in the Valley. Our hope is that we will be corporately transformed by the love of God until we are able to see with the eyes of our hearts, to bring down every boundary that separates us, and to live in this world the way Jesus taught us to do.

I offer a closing prayer taken from our Sacrament of Baptism. Let us pray…

Holy God, we thank you that you have bestowed upon us the forgiveness of sin and raised us to new life of grace. Sustain us in your spirit. Give us inquiring and discerning hearts, the courage and will to persevere, an endless hunger and thirst to know you and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen. (Adapted from Holy Baptism, BCP, 308).

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Creation 8 - Stewardship: Look around and see God

Lectionary: Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; Luke 18:9-14

Note: If the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for .mp3 version.

I begin today with a quote from Orison Marden, a late 19th-century entrepreneur and founder of Success magazine. It will be familiar to those of you who attended our third parish summit last November because we opened our time in summit with this quote:

“Deep within humans dwell these slumbering powers, powers that would astonish them,
that they never dreamed of possessing;
forces that would revolutionize their lives if aroused and put into action.”

We went on in our summit to review the top five values, our slumbering powers, our community discerned together at our first summit - kindness, acceptance, connection, openness, and honesty – and how our institutional structures encourage or inhibit our putting these slumbering powers into action.

It seems clear to me that we live not only in a world hungry for those discerned gifts but also in a county, a city, a college campus where there are many people hungry for them as well.

If we have a goal to grow our church, then it’s important to remember that church growth happens when we are intentional about noticing and connecting with those people whose lives would be lifted up by the gifts God has given so abundantly to our community. For some of those people, it may come as a surprise that there is a church that values what we value, given that so many people have had an experience of church and even Christianity that is unkind, judgmental, divisive, and hypocritical.

Remembering and pondering our slumbering powers is a fine way to celebrate the final Sunday in the season of Creation, a season during which we have taken the time to prayerfully notice and give thanks for the many ways God’s love is real and present in our world and ourselves. Our readings today offer the same theme.

The prophet Joel calls upon the people of God to look around and see the love of God manifested in real ways: abundant rain, threshing floors overflowing with grain, vats overflowing with wine. Joel gives voice to God’s promise of presence and power within us saying, “You shall know that I amin midst of Israel… and I will pour out my spirit on all flesh,” sons and daughters, old and young, even the least of the least in society. God will pour out God’s spirit on ALL people.

The psalmist then repeats the theme delineating the “awesome things” God will show us things when can only see when we are in right relationship with God, one another, and creation. We will recognize the beauty of God’s house – the world, and God’s temple – our very bodies. When we see this beauty in the world and in ourselves, we can only respond by loving it, caring for it, and celebrating its diversity – a real-world sign of the abundance of God’s love.

Being in right relationship with God, one another, and creation often puts us at odds with the world, however, as Paul’s letter to Timothy shows us. Being a voice for right relationship can be lonely, even punishing. Living in right relationship with God and God’s creation may place us in contentious relationship with those who, by their worldly power and self-centered perspective, have a different plan.

I recently saw an article from 2012 that spoke about the origin of the term “tree hugger” – currently a derogatory term in American political culture. Do you know the origin of this?

As you might guess, tree-hugging began as an act of nonviolent resistance. What surprised me was that it didn’t originate with environmentalist hippies in the 1960’s in the US but with a “group of 294 men and 69 women belonging to the Bishnois branch of Hinduism, who, in 1730, died while trying to protect the trees in their village from being turned into the raw material for building a palace. They literally clung to the trees, while being slaughtered by the foresters. But their action led to a royal decree prohibiting the cutting of trees in any Bishnoi village. And now those villages are virtual wooded oases amidst an otherwise desert landscape.” Over time, this tactic spread across India “forcing reforms in forestry and a moratorium on tree felling in Himalayan regions.”

It can be lonely even punishing being the persistent voice calling out for right relationship, but it’s worth doing. What feels like powerlessness in the moment is often revealed to be quite powerful in the big picture, because God is in the midst of it all and God is patient to redeem.

This tree hugger is grateful to those brave souls in India who gave their lives for the truth they knew.

St. David’s knows what it’s like to perceive a truth that the world resists and live into it anyway in faithfulness to its five slumbering powers. Your history of being the first parish in the diocese to perform same-sex marriages before the institutional machine caught up is one example. Your commitment to inclusive and expansive language for God in worship is another.

The task at hand is to intentionally and fully awaken and unleash those slumbering again: kindness, acceptance, connection, openness, and honesty – for all. Is there anyone in this community to whom kindness is not extended, or from whom true connection is withheld? Is there anyone among us who experiences rigidity rather than openness or hypocrisy rather than honesty?

We are not challenged by these, but grateful for the opportunity to grow into the fullness of the community of faith God wishes us to be. The church is, after all, where we learn and practice God’s way of love. We are not expected to be flawless, just faithful.

Imagine if people knew there was a place they could connect with God, other people, and creation; a place that would respond to mistakes or difference with kindness, a place that isn’t afraid of someone’s suffering but enters it with them allowing it to strengthen them both, a place that is willing to redefine itself through prayer and discernment – a place like St. David’s.

It would be astounding and would revolutionize lives.

This coming week, as we bring the pledge portion of the Stewardship of the Entirety of Our Lives to a close, please remember that you are supporting and empowering a bunch of revolutionary tree huggers (just kidding! - - sort of…).

Seriously, your pledge is the means by which St. David’s will be enabled to fully awaken and unleash its slumbering powers of kindness, acceptance, connection, openness, and honesty, which will revolutionize the lives of this faith community, our neighbors, and our corner of God’s garden when put into action. Be alert and watch with me for the awesome things God will show us; real-world signs of the abundance of God’s love happening in and through St. David’s in 2020.


Sunday, October 6, 2019

Creation 5-Biodiversity: Everything is gift

Lectionary: Lectionary: Job 28: 1-11; Ps 148; 1 Tim 4:1-5; Mt 6: 25-33

Note: if the above player doesn't work on your device, click HERE for an alternative audio format.

“For everything created by God is good,” Everything… that’s a pretty bold statement, don’t you think? It seems there are some creatures we might not judge as good. Some people hate spiders, or snakes, or certain politicians. But, and, as our epistle reminds us if we receive the gifts we are given with thanksgiving we can reject nothing.

In other words, everything is gift. Some gifts are apparent at the start, like rain that ends a drought. Other gifts are revealed as gift over time and through experience, which is another way of saying right relationship.

Job uses the metaphor of miners. Miners develop a right relationship with the earth that enables them to recognize iron ore, sapphires, or gold. When mined from the earth these are little more than dull rocks, unless one has eyes to see the gifts they will soon reveal.

Everything is gift. Everything; and those who dig deep in order to find the gifts hidden in the depths find them and bring those hidden things to life, putting an end to darkness. What a powerful promise this is: those who seek the gifts hidden in the depths of our souls, our relationships, our world, find them and enlighten us all.

Miners, as Job calls them, those who dig deep to find the hidden gifts in God’s abundance, reveal the righteousness of God, that is, the way to be in relationship with all that is. It is always a symbiotic relationship: interactive, mutually beneficial. When that symbiotic balance is lost, we have stepped out of God’s righteousness and someone or something is going to get hurt.

Despite our many advances, we just can’t see the big picture. One obvious example: kudzu. Kudzu came to the US in the 1880s as a garden novelty.

“But in 1935, as dust storms damaged the prairies, Congress declared war on soil erosion and enlisted kudzu as a primary weapon. More than 70 million kudzu seedlings were grown in nurseries by the newly created Soil Conservation Service. To overcome the lingering suspicions of farmers, the service offered as much as $8 per acre to anyone willing to plant the vine…. Railroad and highway developers, desperate for something to cover the steep and unstable gashes they were carving into the land, planted the seedlings far and wide… By 1945,…more than a million acres had been planted…Farmers still couldn’t find a way to make money from the crop [however, so by] the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service was quietly back-pedaling on its big kudzu push. (Source)

Driving around here now, it’s frightening how much of our beautiful WNC forests are already covered over by this vine, now classified as an invasive species. We just didn’t see this consequence coming.

Our faith reminds us, however, that everything is gift, though some gifts must be mined, refined, and shined before we see the gift they offer. Did you know that Phytochemicals found in Kudzu have disease prevention properties, including reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease? Ingesting kudzu may also inhibit binge drinking, decrease the frequency of cluster headaches, and ease stomach upset, including the discomfort from irritable bowel syndrome and acute diverticulitis. (Source)

Everything is gift.

The beauty of our faith is that God continually reminds us that we are part of all that is. All of creation is an outward expression of the love of God and is being continually cared for by God. Jesus promised us that sin and death no longer have power over us because God redeems and reconciles all things, all time, all of creation.

So when things get obviously out of balance, our response isn’t to wring our hand and rend our clothing but to wake up and be alert for the redemption about to happen and to serve as co-facilitators with God in that redemption.

Some imbalances are easier to spot than others. When the waters are visibly polluted and the air is heavy with smog, things are out of balance. When pelicans wash up dead with their stomachs full of plastic items, things are out of balance. When species become extinct due to lack of habitat, overhunting, poaching, or pollution, things are out of balance. The list of recent and impending extinctions will break your heart.

We are not helpless. We can and we must facilitate change. It is our duty. It is the living out of our faith. When we speak of re-establishing the symbiotic balance of all creation, frightened and angry voices cry out that the survival of our economic and social systems must be the priority. They rationalize that the changes in climate and species diversity aren’t the result of human interference. To some degree, they are right, but not completely.

Human impact on the environment- for good or ill - is a given. We are here and our presence has an effect. What that effect is… is up to us. It’s our choice.

I was in junior high school when President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and I remember the rapid healing of our environment that followed. I remember boating on the Hudson River in NY before and after the pollution controls were put in place. No one was allowed to swim in the river before but we could after.

I remember the smog over Los Angeles before and after the EPA established emissions requirements for cars. I remember business leaders around the country crying out that EPA restrictions would kill free enterprise. They didn’t. In fact, they opened more avenues for business. The current burgeoning solar power industry is a present-day example.

In our gospel lesson Jesus says, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things, and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

We don’t need to believe this. Those of us who lived in the 1970s can simply remember it.

As I said, though, some imbalances not as easy to spot: relationship imbalances, for example. When relationships move from cooperative to self-centered, the balance is lost and both eventually get hurt – usually one more than the other. This is the root of domestic or interpersonal violence and it is not the righteousness of God. I bring this up as we move through another Domestic Violence Awareness month.

When church ministries move from offering shared gifts to those in need to being in-house mini-kingdoms that control which gifts are shared, how, and with whom, a balance has been lost. Not to pick on a particular ministry, and I want to be clear that this is NOT true of ours at St. David’s, but how sad is it that there is such a thing in the church as Altar Guild Nazis. I've met some of them and it wasn't pleasant.

When a church shifts from an outward mission-focus to an inward survival focus, a balance has been lost. When we worry about the “what will we eat and what will we wear” things like how to pay the electric bill, repair the roof, or cover the salary of a rector, we have forgotten what Jesus said: that our heavenly Father knows what we need. We don’t need to beg God or worry about ourselves at all. Instead, we can focus our attention on the world out there - the world God placed us and our gifts here to serve - and we can choose to be partners in the redeeming, reconciling work of God. We can choose to live out our belief that when we” strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, …all these things will be given to [us] as well.”

But this too, we don’t just need to believe. Those who were here following St. David’s last resurrection can simply remember it. Those who weren’t here can read about it in June’s book on the history of St. David’s. (Source: “do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about, A History of St David’s-in-the-Valley Episcopal Church, Cullowhee, NC 1883-2017, St. Hilda’s Press, 2019) p 53.

Redemption is a given. It is promised and delivered over and over again in our Christian narrative and in our own lives.

Everything is gift. Every circumstance, every person, every event, everything reveals more of the redeeming love of God. Let us be the eyes that see, the miners who bring these hidden gifts to light.