Sunday, May 23, 2021

Pentecost 2021-B: Love declared and shared


Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35, 37; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15 

En el nombre del Dios: padre, hijo, y espiritu santo. Amen.

The Episcopal Church has seven Principal Feasts, and today is one of them, which is why we transfer it from Thursday, if we don’t celebrate it on that day, to Sunday. It’s a date the church wants us to notice and celebrate together. 

Of the seven Principal Feasts, four are about God: Jesus’ birth at Christmas, his resurrection at Easter, his Ascension, and the nature of the triune God on Trinity Sunday. Two of them, All Saints and Epiphany, focus on us humans.

Pentecost is both. Today we celebrate the moment the Holy Spirit entered the mortal bodies of Jesus’ disciples, the first instance of how Jesus would continue his ministry of reconciliation: through us, his followers. It’s an amazing reality when you think about it.

The disciples were gathered together when suddenly they heard a sound like the rush of wind. Tongues of fire appeared and divided over them, resting upon each one of them, and they began to speak in all kinds of languages. As amazed as the disciples were by what was happening, the people outside, Jews from many nations, were perplexed. How are these Galileans suddenly able to speak in our native tongues? How indeed.

Years ago, I was a chaplain on the oncology/hematology unit of a regional hospital in south GA. One day I sat at the bedside of an elderly man, Rufus, who was dying of cancer. Rufus had no teeth and spoke with a very thick southern accent that I found nearly impossible to understand.

As he spoke, I could hear enough to know he was telling me his life story as many dying patients did. He had a 3rd grade education, something about his sisters and his grandmother… and the death of his parents when he was very young.

There I was, knowing how important it was for me to hear this man’s final words, yet feeling helpless and frustrated because I just couldn’t understand him. “Lord, give me Pentecost ears” I cried silently in prayer. “Open my ears to understand him – and hurry!”

Just as I finished praying, I literally heard what sounded like a rush of wind. My ears felt like they popped, the way they do when you’re in an airplane and they adjust to the change in pressure.

And suddenly, the man’s voice was as clear as a bell. He was talking about meeting the woman who became his wife just before he shipped off to Europe in WWII. He told me about his children, how his heart broke when his son went to prison and the joy his grandchildren and great-grandchildren brought to his life.

As he spoke, part of me was marveling at the fact that I could actually understand him. Another part of me was aware that we were experiencing a miraculous moment, a moment full of the power of the Holy Spirit.

When Rufus finished speaking, he wanted to rest, so I told him I’d sit nearby and read the Psalms to him. As he slept, I looked at this weathered, toothless, 90-something-year-old man, whose great-grandparents were slaves, and I realized, he felt in my heart like family. Though he died only 6 hours after I’d met him, I will always cherish my memory of Rufus and the Pentecost moment we shared.

The power that came upon those gathered at that first Pentecost, the power that unified Rufus and me, is the same power that comes upon us today. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said in his 1967 speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference: “Power at its best is love… implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

Filled with this power, Peter preached to the people from “every nation under heaven” gathered in Jerusalem that they were witnessing the fulfillment of God’s promise given through the prophet Joel where God declares, “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” Not just male flesh, or Jewish flesh, but all flesh.

Look around you, Peter is telling them. The Holy Spirit is alighting upon all of us: Jew, Gentile, male, female, slave, free – and it’s happening now. I (Mother Valori+) declare to you today that God is still pouring God’s Spirit into all flesh: white, black, brown, Asian, gay, lesbian, straight, transgender, non-binary... all flesh.

So how do we bear this powerful love into the world today? In the gospel reading from John, Jesus gives us the way to go.

He said that the Spirit of Truth “will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned."

Let’s unpack those three very powerful statements.

1) “…about sin because they do not believe in me.” The world today is still wrong about sin, focusing so much on our actions. But sin is about something else. We believe that in Jesus we are reconciled, that is, made one with God and one another. Sin, then is the separation of ourselves from God and one another. It is the opposite of Jesus’ work and the opposite of our call to serve him in the world.

2) “about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer…” Jesus reconciled us to God by lifting humanity up into divinity through his earthly body, establishing for evermore what our righteousness is: oneness in body and spirit with God in Christ. Righteousness involves faith in the resurrected and ascended Jesus and our acceptance of his final gift to us: his own Spirit dwelling in us.

3) “…about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” This word, judgment is literally translated as ‘the act of separation or sundering.’ Jesus declares that at the same time he reconciled us to himself, giving us life, he also liberated us from the power of sin and death.

Our world is crying out through so many voices, that sisters and brothers among us are in pain or afraid. So much divides us in May of 2021. This prayer from Henri Nouwen speaks well to our times: 

O Lord, awaken the consciousness of all peoples and their leaders; raise up men and women full of love and generosity who can speak and act for peace, and show us new ways in which hatred can be left behind, wounds can be healed, and unity can be restored. (Source: A Cry for Mercy)

On this feast of Pentecost, we are reminded that what matters is that we are united with God in Christ who dwells in us. As followers of Jesus and bearers of his Spirit in the world, our response is to be present to God and one another in such a way that God’s powerful love in us is declared and shared by us for the benefit of all. God will show us new ways to do this as we continue our shared ministry of reconciliation until the whole world is “restored to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (The Catechism, BCP, 855) Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

6 Easter, 2021-B: Fruit that lasts


Lectionary: Acts 10:44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17 

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

Abiding in God who abides in Jesus and he in us repeats as a theme for us this week. Abiding in this way is so important that Jesus keeps talking about it. It is the fullness of reconciliation in which we are unified with God in our bodies, minds, and souls.

Most everyone has had a sense of that kind of unifying moment when you know God is in you and in everything there is, and you are one with all that is. The mystics call this a unitive moment.

Abiding in this way has been discussed, disputed, and defined by theologians throughout our church history. But one of the best descriptions I’ve ever seen comes from a 10-year-old boy named Turner whom I served at a previous church.

I had brought in a labyrinth and did a multi-generational teaching on how to pray using it. I asked everyone to write a reflection on their experience following their prayer walk. I’m going to share with you Turner’s reflection. You can hear how it incorporates the three-fold process of the labyrinth prayer walk: purgation (that is, letting go), illumination (clarity or insight), and union (integration and action in the world). 
“When I let go I began to feel warm and good inside. When I got to the center I felt like, I can’t describe it, but I just appreciated the fact that I was here and It (sic) felt for a moment, like I was the happiest man on earth. And I just loved everyone. And then it was gone and I went down the path feeling peaceful inside and the feeling has not left me yet. If felt as if god (sic) was there, beside me, walking with me, and spreading his kindness and love to me. I exited the maze ready for whatever the world would throw at me, because I knew, I knew that God was with me as he is with everyone I don’t fell (sic) happy, sad, anxious, or angry. its lik (sic) just everything is inferior to Gods love that is with me now. I have never been so calm and peaceful in my life. I know now that God is with me, and will guide me till I die and go to heaven. God is with me now and I know it for sure.”
I’m grateful Turner had his first unitive moment in a time of intentional prayer at church so that he can connect those things for the rest of his life. This is why Christian formation at church matters so much.

But this kind of experience of God is not limited to our prayers. At our Bible Study this week we talked about how seeing birds brings many of us excitement and joy; how we experience being in real relationship with creation through interactions with them, other critters, or creation itself. 

 They talked about these relationships as love – not the sentimental, romantic kind of love, but a love that makes us feel like kin, related to and connected to one another, concerned for the welfare of the other – which for many of us takes the simple form of birdfeeders we put out to feed and water the feathered members of our family.

When God connects to us in love, it’s a felt experience, that is, we feel it in our bodies. A joy fills us to overflowing, and in those moments, we feel one with all that is, or was, or ever will be.

That feeling is the joy Jesus is talking about when he says our joy will be complete. It’s a pervasive, almost overwhelming physical and spiritual experience of wholeness and unity, and it’s available to all of us.

Learning ways to pray and intentionally invite this experience helps empower us to serve God in the world, and that’s why Christian Formation for all ages is such an important responsibility of the church. Have I mentioned that already? I did… but it bears repeating.

When we have been made one with God, one another, and all that is in these unitive experiences, we are strengthened and empowered to serve God in the world because, as Turner said in his prayer, we are made “ready for whatever the world throws at [us] because God is with [us]… and everything is inferior to God’s love that is with [us].”

Abiding in Jesus who abides in the Father means remaining aware that we carry God into every part of our lives: our families, work or school, leisure, volunteering, and politics. We are God-bearers, just as Mary was.

Imagine if, in the midst of a contentious argument, we remembered that everything is inferior to God’s love and that God’s love, which abides in us, connects us to everything and everyone – even the one with whom we are arguing?

How might that affect our responses? For one thing, it would redirect our attention from being right to being loving, from winning to connecting.

Here’s how that might look. A friend or family member is ideologically on the opposite end of the spectrum from you. Pick a topic – there are a million hot topics to choose from right now: gun control, BLM, getting vaccinated or not.

This being a sermon, though, let’s use the story from Acts as our example. It’s an unlikely scenario in which a Roman mercenary, Cornelius the Centurion, and Peter, Jesus’ disciple and the rock on whom Jesus would build the church, are brought together.

When Cornelius meets Peter, he senses the presence of God who abides in Peter, and connects this sensation to a dream he’d just had. Cornelius falls at Peter’s feet.

Peter, probably unaware of how powerfully the presence of God within him is sensed by Cornelius, lifts Cornelius up and in that moment, Peter himself understands God’s message to him from his own dream: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

Peter suddenly knows - in that way of knowing that is beyond thoughts - that not just food, but ALL God has made is sacred – even this man who represents everything Peter would be justified in hating. It is a unitive moment for sure.

Cornelius invites Peter to speak to his household, which was probably more than 200 people. Peter accepts and preaches the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ to them. Our reading today from Acts picks up from this moment.

While Peter was still preaching “the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.” In that moment all who were present, and all of us who read this today, understand that what had been divided has been made one by heaven on earth.

It can be done. It has already been done, and it continues to be done.

God is doing for us today what God did for Peter and for Cornelius: bringing us and our diverse neighbors into the presence of one another, to provide opportunity for the reconciling love of God to transform earthly divisions into divine unity. And God does that now through us – in whom Jesus abides. So whether the topic is gun control, BLM, or getting vaccinated or not, we have a model for how to act faithfully and participate in Jesus’ reconciling work in the world.

In ordinary circumstances, Peter wouldn’t have chosen to be around Cornelius … or baptize him. Each time I read that Peter offered Baptism to all those upon whom the Spirit had fallen, I rejoice even as I hear the voice of the liturgy police gasp with disapproval that this sacrament would be given without proper preparation. Yet, there it is…

I rejoice because this story reminds us that Baptism isn’t initiation into our holy club. It’s initiation into the body of Christ - a sacrament, that manifests and affirms the sacredness and chosen-ness of all whom God has made, reconciling everyone into one family – the family of God.

In the end, it is Love who chooses us, activates us, reconciles us, and finally, transforms the world through us. How sweet it is when our faith makes space for God to act. This is our victory. This is the fruit that lasts. Amen.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

5 Easter, 21-B: Beloved branches

Lectionary: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 

En el nombre del Dios: Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen. 

 We are a people of the Good News and today’s news is truly good. Our gospel story today is the allegory of the vineyard, which is one of my favorites because of its simplicity, clarity, and assurance.

In this story, God the Father is the vinegrower, Jesus is the vine, and those who follow Jesus are the branches. When Jesus says I am the true vine, it implies there are false vines too. If we remember that sin is the seeking of our own will rather than God’s will, then we see that the prophets in Scripture disclose to us when the people of God were themselves the false vine.

In Jeremiah God says to Israel: “…I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine? (2:21) The prophet Isaiah bemoans, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (5:7)

We all mess up, but they acknowledged when they messed up because they knew God loved them, chose them, and would forgive them when they repented. It was a cycle of their lives in relationship with God that played out over and over again. And in characteristic faithfulness, God always invited Israel back into righteousness.

We, on the other hand, fear that if we mess up, we’ll be condemned, thrown out of relationship with God, and into an eternal experience of suffering – even though this is neither Scriptural nor part of our Christian tradition. Still, we tend to resist owning up and repenting when we mess up, and when I say “we” I mean us as individuals and us as church. That’s why we often miss the gift in this allegory.

Production is a highly overrated cultural value right now and connecting it to a person or institution’s worth is dangerous, so we must be very careful not to impose that modern cultural value on the story in our Scripture. This isn’t a story about production or punishment. It’s one of the most beautiful stories found in Scripture of the assurance of God’s mercy and tender loving care. 

In this allegory, Jesus is promising that God, as the vinegrower, is watching over all of us and will have not only the awareness of what tending needs to happen but also the desire to do it. He is assuring us that he himself is the vine that provides us, the branches, all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

The vinegrower (God) is watching over not only the vine but also the world in which the vine lives. When conditions in the world change, the vinegrower responds, pruning the vine so that it thrives in the new environment.

If we connect this allegory to the church, which is appropriate, we can see the blessed assurance that as the world changes, God responds by pruning the church so that we can live, grow, and produce fruit for the kingdom in our changed environment. As demographics shift and economies change, church ministries that once were responsive to the needs of the local context may need to give way to new ministries that serve the changed environment.

So, what about the branches that wither on the vine? The ones Jesus said will be thrown into the fire and burned? Is this a warning to us that we must be productive?

I don’t think so. Jesus didn’t use fear or threats in his ministry or in his revelation of God to us. Instead, he continually gave us glimpses into the mercy of God, like when he asked those ready to stone the woman caught in adultery to cast the first stone if they had no sin, or when he healed on the Sabbath, or raised the son of a widow from death to life.

Also, is it even possible not to fear a God who threatens to torture you eternally if you don’t produce? As our epistle writer points out, “There is no fear in love, but perfect (that is, complete) love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (4:18)

As followers of Jesus when we read the gospels we are reading Good News. If what we read doesn’t sound like good news, we need to pray and listen for the continuing revelation Jesus promised us. As our Presiding Bishop is wont to say, “If it isn’t about love, it isn’t about God.”

Being sent into the fire to burn isn’t a threat – it’s a gift, which is why Jesus offers it - and I can prove it. Where else in the Bible do we hear about fire? • Exodus 3:1-6 - (Story of the burning bush) Then God called to Moses out of the bush saying: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 
  • Exodus 13: 21 – (God’s guidance of the Israelites in exile) The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.

  • Exodus 24:17 – (Story of God giving Moses the 10 commandments) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
  • Luke 3:16 - John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
  • Acts 2:3 – (the story of Pentecost) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.
Fire, in Bible-speak, is the presence of God, who, as our epistle eloquently affirms, is love. Entering into the fire, then, is entering into the presence of God who transforms and refines us, giving us new life.

Whenever we enter into the presence of God, we come out better than when we went in. Will it hurt? Probably, but not for long and the gift of new life we procure will make the transition to it worth it.

The Good News we know is that whenever we mess up, or when the world changes around us, God’s love is there for us, surrounding us when we are afraid, guiding us when we are lost, and transforming us when we need renewal, forming new life for us, for the church, and for the world.

Sharing in the presence and passion of God is one of the fruits of the truth that Jesus abides in us and we in him. When we pray then, we are inviting Jesus to align our wills with God’s will. That’s why he promises that whatever we wish will be done – when we abide in him.

Abiding in Jesus also means recognizing that we are to be as honest, merciful, respectful, kind, and humble in our dealings with one another as God in Christ is with us. We have some work to do here: owning up to and repenting of messing up in the church and in the world. For example, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk are still under-employed and unfairly paid in our beloved Episcopal church institution. Black people are killed nearly every week even as they sleep in their beds, play at a park, comply with authorities, or try to escape. The needs of some who remain vulnerable to COVID are unsympathetically dismissed by those who are tired of the restrictions. Yes, we have work to do… owning up and repenting.

Finally, abiding in Jesus means that when we are experiencing the pain of divine pruning we can rejoice not recoil and cooperate with God at work in us, preparing us to produce fruit, for living as beloved branches of the true vine assures fruit for the kingdom.

When we see withered branches being thrown into the fire we will not judge them. Instead, we’ll remember that they too are beloved branches, chosen ones being drawn into the transforming love of God that leads to new life.

God’s response to sin and death is forgiveness and new life, and healing is God’s response to all wounds. The Good News, therefore, is that we can offer ourselves and our church fully and continually to God, without fear of sin or changes in our environment, and anticipate the promised gift of new life. We are the beloved branches of the true vine from whom we have all we need to live, grow, and bear fruit for the kingdom.

Thanks be to God! Amen.