Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost, 2020-A: Our continual becoming

Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; John 7:37-39

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En el nombre del Dios: Creador, Redentor, y Santificador. Amen.

We are a people of story. Our collective Christian story is chronicled for us in our Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. The story of our redemption is found in the gospels; and the way the church was born and grew following the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is told in the remaining books of the New Testament - but that is only the beginning of the story.

Pentecost marks what many call the birthday of the church, the day Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit came to us, to dwell within us and among us and guide us on the path of divine love that would lead to the reconciliation of the whole world to God. On that first Day of Pentecost the church began its journey to reach all people of all languages, nations, and tribes by the gift of the Spirit of God.

On that day God demonstrated that everyone who believed would able to share the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ to everyone else. Language would no longer be a barrier because, as we heard, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

The work begun that day continues to this day.

Our collective story is being written continually by God. The barrier we face today isn’t language. Almost anything can be translated with a push of a button due to our advanced technology. The barrier we face in this moment of our collective story involves the shutting down of our churches and other cultural systems due to the coronavirus pandemic.

This moment in time points to seismic shifts in all of our systems: family, religion, education, medicine, finance, business, agriculture, and social safety nets for the poor, infirm, and mentally ill. All of our assumptions are being challenged, and our systems and processes are up for re-examination as we work to find our way through this global pandemic moment.

Those early Christians also experienced a seismic shift in their way of being. The nascent church was formed in the midst of persecutions and atrocities, and their emergence involved a courageous breaking free from oppressive systems replacing them with a culture built on the principals of love inaugurated by Jesus.

This is our moment and the situation we face is remarkably similar. How we adapt, how we share the Good News of the world’s redemption in Jesus Christ, will determine how our chapter in the continuing Christian story is written. Thankfully, we have the power to write our own story. More than that, we have a commission to do so.

The same Spirit that descended on those first believers descends upon us now and works as powerfully through us. Those first chapters of our collective story speak of marvelous ministries and colossal growth, as people who hungered for hope and thirsted for life, true life in which they were valued and free to be who they were created to be, found it in the newly forming and expanding Christian community.

When Peter quotes God’s promise to pour out God’s spirit on all flesh, men and women, slave and free, enabling dreams and visions - he couldn’t have foreseen our time of closed church buildings and Zoom worship, online school, and virtual medical care. Yet, God continues to fulfill this promise in us today, so we must be awake and open to God accomplishing marvelous ministries and colossal growth in the way of love today.

This is, after all, the same God who our psalmist proclaims as creator of the “great and wide sea with living things too many to number, creatures both great and small.” This is the same God who created the Leviathan then and the duck-billed platypus now - just for the fun of it.

Our Good News is that the God who created all that is, is the same God who is creating and recreating us now, lavishing us with gifts to be used for the common good. This may be the most overlooked feature of our collective story in modern culture: that the gifts God gives us as individuals who are part of the body of Christ, are given so that we can serve. As Jesus said, he didn’t come to be served but to serve. The same is true for us.

As many of you have heard me say: I believe that each church is unique, uniquely gifted, and has a divine purpose. God gathers a particular group of people together at a particular time, and commissions us to respond to the world around us as Jesus taught us to do until the whole world, all nations, languages, peoples, and tribes are reconciled to God in Christ.

The Christian story is one of continual becoming and the believers in each era are co-creators with God in that becoming. It is our faith that gives us the confidence to examine all of our systems and respond as the Spirit guides us.

The shutting down of our churches and cultural systems has raised up for us in the clearest possible ways, where those systems weren’t working before. The number of people who are unemployed and those who are food and shelter insecure continues to surge here and around the world.

One would have to work very hard these days not to see that people are hungry for hope and thirsting for life - and we have it to share. Jesus tells us that out of the hearts of believers will flow rivers of living water, meant to soothe anyone who thirsts.

In my non-profit work, my partner, Martin, and I talk about moving not toward a new normal, but a better normal. So many of our cultural and religious systems were not working for the common good. What if it can be written about our part of the collective Christian story that we were co-creators with God of a better normal that rises like a phoenix out of the ashes of this pandemic?

We, like those who came before us, will confront those who will try to stop us, even persecute and oppress us to preserve the old way of being, but it’s too late. That way is already gone. What comes next is our choice. Will we passively allow a restoration of what was, knowing it didn’t work except for a privileged few, or will we actively co-create a better normal, one that works for the common good?

It seems like a big decision, a risky decision - and it is. The hope we have, though, is that the same Spirit who guided those first believers, as imperfect as they were, guides us too, as imperfect as we are.

It must have appeared to many of them in their present moment, that they weren’t achieving the outcomes they’d hoped to see. We have the advantage of historical perspective, however, so we know that redemption takes time, meaning we can be patient and confident as each new step is formed, re-formed, and incorporated into our collective experience.

Redemption is the promise we believe. In every moment we cling to the belief that all things, all peoples and nations, all creation will be reconciled to God in Jesus Christ the Redeemer.

We also believe that we have been chosen by Jesus to serve in his name in our time. Jesus has made us sources of living water, of hope and life in the way of divine love. God knows the way we should go and will guide us there. Guaranteed.

This may be the most hope-filled moment in recent history and in our collective Christian story. The whole world is seeing how intimately connected we truly are. This shift from national to global citizenship could be for us what the shift from the Jewish community to the Gentile world was for those first Christians. I pray we respond faithfully as God reaches farther and farther - through us - to draw everyone into one family of love.

Happy birthday to the church in our continual becoming. Amen.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

6 Easter: Clothed in the love of God

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

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The icon featured here was commissioned for me for my ordination by my first parish, St. Paul's in St. Joseph, MI. It was written by Anne Davidson, Iconographer in the Diocese of Western Michigan.

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

Our gospel today is the next section of Jesus’ farewell discourse, and like last week, we are reading from his teaching given at the Last Supper in order to reflect on it from the perspective of his resurrection.

This part of Jesus’ teaching begins with “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (Note: I inadvertently cut out the second part of this quote, the last sentence in this pericope. I didn't realize it until I was preaching it, at which point it was too late and I didn't know the quote well enough to fake it. The next sentence, however, makes more sense when it's included, so here it is: "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me: and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”)

Is Jesus telling us that his love of us is conditional on our obedience?

At first glance, it might seem like that, but I don’t think he is. Our reflection on this part of John’s gospel requires a little vocabulary study from the original Greek to help us understand the meaning of this text.

In the first place, the word we translate as “if” isn’t a conditional in the original Greek. It’s a word that implies a future possibility which experience determines. And the word “keep” refers to preserving, maintaining, or continuing something. It isn’t talking about obeying at all. That’s a whole different word in Greek.

So we might restate what Jesus’ like this: When you love me, you will discover that you will maintain and continue what I have commanded, that is, enjoined you to do. Then the question becomes, what did Jesus urge us to do? The answer is: to love.

Love one another as I have loved you. (Jn 13:34) Love your enemies. (Mt 5: 44) Love.

Once, when he was asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus held up two: to love God with all our hearts, minds, strength, and souls (Deut 6:5), and to love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev 19:18) . On these two, he said, hang all the guidance and inspired teaching.

Granted, keeping those two commandments isn’t easy to do, especially in the midst of the kind of grief of loss the disciples would experience when he was gone from them, a loss he said would happen “in a little while.” So he promised them another comforter, translated here as Advocate, both words being accurate even in their distinction.

We can sense when people near us are beginning to panic. We can see it in their faces and body language, and feel the energy of it building like static electricity around us. Perceiving this among his disciples Jesus speaks directly to it saying, I will not leave you comfortless or alone with no one to love you, take care of you, protect you, and celebrate you. I am coming to you - to comfort you and support you forever.

As with our gospel reading last week, we are invited to contemplate this teaching of Jesus with spiritual understanding. One day, Jesus says, we’ll get it! We’ll know that God is in Jesus, who is in us, and we are in him, and through him, we are in God.

Get it?

I remember when I was in my seminary Greek class and we were all feeling so overwhelmed by how vastly different Greek was, from the alphabet to the layers of meanings, and the many conjugations and tenses. Our professor assured us that one day, we’d just get it, and he snapped his fingers.

Oh sure, we thought. Easy for him to say! But he was right. One day, it suddenly all fell into place and the learning began to happen at lightning speed like a vortex was opened.

Jesus was promising the same thing… “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. When that happens, you will have my commandments within you and you will be able to preserve and continue them.

You will know love, divine love. You will know that you are loved by God, and by me, and I will be revealed to you in ways you couldn’t have understood before, and it will change everything! The knowledge Jesus is talking about here is spiritual understanding.

Our beloved Dame Julian of Norwich speaks of this so eloquently. Here are her words:

“I desired in many ways to know what was our Lord's meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord's meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same.”

This is the love in which “we live and move and have our being” as Paul quoted from the poets of his time… the love who “holds our souls in life and will not allow our feet to slip” as the psalmist says. It all boils down to love: divine, eternal, sacrificial, joyful, mutual love.

This doesn’t change the fact that we will know suffering, doubt, and darkness throughout the course of our lives. In addition, we may get it, as Jesus said we would, then lose it again, and get it again, over and over in the course of our lives.

Knowing this love with spiritual understanding means that we will never be alone in any of the “changes and chances of this life.” (BCP, 133) We will never be comfortless. We will always be, as Dame Julian says, clothed in the love of God, which “wraps and holds us… enfolds us for love and will never let us go.”

We also have each other. Prayer not only “fastens us to God” as Julian says, it also fastens us to one another, connecting the love of God in you to the love of God in me, as it were. Those connections are real and through them God can change the world, working in and through us.

In these days of pandemic when our usual connection to God and one another in our weekly experience of the Holy Eucharist is unavailable to us, we can rely on the power of prayer to keep us connected to God and one another in love. Prayer is unhindered by time and space, and as our psalmist says, our prayers are attended to by God.

I pray we continue to pray together, more and more as the Spirit guides our community to do, for our sake, but also for the sake of those, nearby and far off, who connect with our circle of love virtually. What a gift we have received: the will and motivation to pray online. I am so grateful for those here at Calvary who are committed to being fastened to God and one another through our online prayer life.

Since Julian of Norwich has been so present in this reflection on the Word, let’s close with the prayer assigned to her feast day, which was just last week: May 8.

Let us pray: Lord God, who in your compassion granted to the Lady Julian many revelations of your nurturing and sustaining love: Move our hearts, like hers, to seek you above all things, for in giving us yourself you give us all; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

5 Easter, 2020-A: Our spiritual reality

Lectionary: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; John 14:1-14

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

I’m a big fan of English literature, and in those classic novels, people sat in reflective thought for hours pondering the events of their lives. For example, in Charlotte Brönte’s novel, “Villette” the main character, Lucy, spends three hours reflecting upon a single conversation she had with Dr. Bretton. Three hours!

Can you imagine? Interestingly, the present moment of sheltering-at-home offers us the opportunity to do just that - if we take advantage of the gift of time, put down our phones, turn off the TVs, and sit in quiet reflection instead.

It is in this reflective sense that the lectionary writers revisit the Last Supper even though we are well into the 50 Days of Easter. Before the resurrection the disciples heard Jesus’ words but, we’re told, they didn’t fully understand them. On this side of the resurrection, everything Jesus said and did will have new, more profound meaning upon reflection and the church is invited to spend some time listening deeply and letting God guide our understanding of these events which will be the foundational guide for our life choices, just as it was for those first disciples.

Last week we heard Jesus teaching about servant-leadership using the figure of speech of a good shepherd, claiming himself as the gate, that is, the way to truth and life. This week, Jesus reaffirms this saying no one can come to God except through him. Then he declares in very clear I AM statements (remembering that I AM is the name of God from Exodus): I AM the Way. I AM the Truth. I AM the Life.

How are they to understand this upon reflection? How are we?

We are all being invited by Jesus into a new relationship, one unconstrained by earthly limits. We can’t listen with literal, earthly understanding because Jesus is speaking spiritually, saying things like: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

The literal listeners, like Thomas, ask, ‘Where is that place? We want to go but how can we know the way?

With amazing compassion, Jesus gently begins to address this very human hesitance to move into spiritual understanding, clarifying that the place he is speaking about isn’t a location, it’s a relationship: “where I AM there you will also be… because I AM in the Father and the Father is in me… If you know me, you know the Father also… The Father who dwells in me does his works… Believe me that I AM in the Father and the Father is in me…”

Jesus is “I AM” and God dwells in him and works through him. Where Jesus is we are also because Jesus dwells in us and we in him. It’s a spiritual reality that redefines our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with God and neighbor.

From this side of the resurrection, Jesus’ words reach deeply into his disciples, and into us, beyond our earthly understanding. We know that finding the words to describe spiritual experience is hard because they limit the truth of the experience so much.

So, how do we describe it? How can we share it and how will it be received?

The story of the stoning of Stephen is a perfect description of how earthly ears may hear and respond to spiritual experience - and it isn’t pretty. We can take heart, though, this isn’t the only response, but we are wise to remember it is a common metaphoric one.

I remember when I was very young, about five years old, and I would try to tell about my spiritual experiences of God: how the trees sang a song of heaven to me; how forest critters (including snakes) drew close and hung out with me like family; how the healing power of God opened to my awareness illness and injury in other people’s bodies, or how God my Mother would hold me in her lap and heal me from continuing abusive experiences.

I learned very quickly that my spiritual experiences were not welcomed discussions, especially my experience of God as Mother before my Christian educators taught me that God could only be Father - so I stopped talking about them. It didn’t stop them from happening - it only stopped me from talking about them.

It’s probably no surprise then how much I love the maternal metaphor in Peter’s epistle where he says: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk. Long for the nourishment that leads to spiritual understanding that will work and live in cooperation with earthly understanding because by it we “grow into salvation” which is eternal unity with God.

If ever you “have tasted that the Lord is good…[Peter says] let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood…” Like Jesus before him, Peter isn’t talking about a location when he says “be a spiritual house” and he isn’t talking about an ordained office when he says “be a holy priesthood.” He’s talking about the fullness of the human-divine relationship that is in all of us, because of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

Jesus reminds us that we are built by our Creator as dwelling places for the divine. As he says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

That the spirit of Jesus lives in us is our spiritual reality, which upon reflection, affects how we hear Jesus say,” the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” I mean, it’s hard to imagine doing greater works than those Jesus did: raising Lazarus from the dead, healing the man born blind, calming the storm on the sea… but only when we listen with literal ears and from an earthly understanding.

In fact, we’re already doing these works. When we accompany someone through a time of transition as they let go of their old life or their old self, and step into a new life, God, who dwells in us, is doing his work raising the dead back to life. When we speak the truth of God in Christ by our lives or using words, and someone finally gets it, God has done her work in us bringing sight to the blind. When we walk willingly into someone’s nightmare, bearing the peace of Christ to them by our very presence, God has worked through us to calm the storm in their life.

We all have these stories when we think about it with spiritual understanding because we are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, consecrated by God to proclaim by our lives as much as by our words the mighty acts of the one who calls us all from darkness into his marvelous light.

Jesus concludes this portion of his farewell discourse with a statement that truly deserves reflection: “I will do whatever you ask in my name, [he says] so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

When we listen deeply, we hear Jesus promising that whenever we choose to serve as he served, to be his hands and feet on earth, what we desire will reflect the desire of the One who dwells in us, and the will of God will become reality on earth as it is in heaven by God in Christ who works in us. May we steadfastly follow the one who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life, now and forevermore.


Sunday, May 3, 2020

4 Easter, 20-A: Serving like our Shepherd

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

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

I revel in the knowledge that Jesus knows us. Jesus is so familiar with each and every one of us and the circumstances of our lives that when he wants us to notice and attend to him, he calls us by name. I revel in the knowledge that when we hear the voice of Jesus it is familiar to us, enabling us to respond with trust, complete trust, even when confusion and doubt are also present.

It’s the same for us as it was for Mary Magdalene when the risen Christ called her by name outside the tomb. When Jesus is speaking to us, there’s a peace that happens within us. When we hear his voice, we hear it with our whole selves, our bodies, and our spirits, and we respond with joy even in the midst of our confusion or fear.

I have learned over the years that when Jesus calls me by my name and I respond with complete trust, then I can follow him into the most radiant joy or the darkest nightmare - mine or someone else’s. I can follow him because he is God and I am not, and I believe with all I am that God would never lead me to my destruction.

Dark moments happen in life and people suffer. Sometimes we can trace a line of events that enables us to find the cause or someone to blame, but then what? How are we to respond? What does the voice of our Good Shepherd say to us?

As followers of Jesus we must always work to bring about justice - the kind of justice Jesus brought - the kind that opens a pathway for the redemption of all. This is the justice Jesus is describing in the story of the Good Shepherd.

In those days, shepherds would lead their flocks to communal grazing areas. The sheep would mix all up together as they ate. When the day was ending, the shepherds would call to their flocks using unique sounds and signals their sheep would recognize. Each shepherd would then walk their own flock toward their nightly enclosure.

Unless they were a very rich shepherd, which most weren’t, their enclosures had no gates, only an opening. At night a good shepherd would lay down across that opening and sleep there so that no sheep could wander out and no predator or thief could sneak in.

The leadership Jesus was teaching about is servant-leadership, which is an ‘other-focused’ leadership. The shepherd’s duty was to ensure the well-being of the sheep, even at the cost of his own safety and comfort.

Sadly, not everyone practices this kind of leadership, and Jesus teaches us that we can tell who they are by the way they enter into the fold. If they enter by the gate they are a shepherd. If they enter any other way, they are nothing more than a thief or a bandit.

The gospel story goes on to tell us that Jesus, observing his figure of speech wasn’t catching hold, explains it again only this time unambiguously: I am the gate, he says - twice, to mark it as important.

This is one of those “I AM” moments in Scripture. “I AM” is the name of God. Remember in Exodus when God told Moses to tell the people “I AM” sent me? In this moment, Jesus is powerfully, and not so subtly, claiming his divinity. I AM the gate, he says. In other words, I AM the Way.

Whoever enters by me will be preserved from danger and destruction, free to wander in and out to find pasture, which as the 23rd psalm tells us is peace, community, nourishment, and the presence of God.

Despite the poor reputation sheep have for intelligence, Jesus clarifies that the sheep in this parable ain’t so dumb. “They will not follow a stranger,” he says, but “they will run from him because” they don’t know him, and therefore, can’t trust him.

The thief speaks lies that benefit himself. The shepherd speaks truth that benefits the flock. I AM the Truth, Jesus says.

The other leaders will steal, kill, and destroy. “I came that they may have life” - abundant life. I AM the Life, Jesus says.

I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The thieves and bandits Jesus is alluding to were the Jewish religious leaders of his time, but the same is true of leadership in all times, including ours. As the pandemic holds the whole world in its grip, the world leaders who are focused on the health and safety of all are easily differentiated from those who are mostly concerned with themselves.

We ain’t dumb either.

The communal society described in the story from Acts shows us that it is possible for people to live together in such a way that the resources of all are shared with those who have any need. It isn’t an utopian dream. It was a reality. It just didn’t win the day in human history.

The famous quote: “Let them eat cake” comes to mind. Whether Marie Antoinette said it or not is in question, but what is certain is the sentiment behind it. The rich and powerful in most of human history have not been inclined to practice the servant-leadership of the Good Shepherd.

One last thing, in case anyone wants to use Scripture to stifle the voices of the suffering. In his epistle, Peter is not calling for the suffering to simply endure their suffering as Jesus quietly endured his for us. He’s speaking specifically to slaves who were already suffering and was letting them know that Jesus was suffering with them.

If you’ll remember, Jesus also turned over the tables of the money-changers at the temple who were a stumbling block to the poor who wanted to worship God. Sometimes Jesus’ advocacy wasn’t quiet at all.

How, then do we know when to fight bravely and when to endure humbly? The answer is simple: follow the voice of Jesus - which requires, of course, that we take time to learn the sound of his voice in our lives.

Last week, Deacon Janet suggested people journal their experiences and discover where they are encountering Jesus while we shelter in place. I totally agree and I’d take that advice even farther: listen for the voice of Jesus in your body, in creation, in one another, in your dreams. Our Good Shepherd is speaking to us all the time, using sounds and signals unique to our hearing.

When we gather to worship, whether online or in our churches, we are making time and space to listen to the voice of Jesus so that, as individuals and as a faith community, we can serve as Jesus served.

And our call to serve isn’t limited by our current in-place sheltering. If anything, it’s expanded.

With the unemployment rolls billowing into the hundreds of thousands as a result of the pandemic, it’s isn’t as easy to dismiss and blame anyone for their need. Suddenly there is a renewed awareness that sharing the resources of the rich with those who have need is the right thing to do.

As followers of Jesus, we have an opportunity to lead a cultural shift in the way people who have need are treated both now, and when our in-place sheltering is lifted. We all have the opportunity to be servant-leaders following our Good Shepherd who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our goal, like his, is to serve so that all may have life and have it abundantly.

Let us pray. Grant, O God, that we will listen for the voice of our Good Shepherd, who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads. Amen.