Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, May 20, 2018

YEAR B 2018 feast of pentecost

Year B, 2018
Pentecost, 2015
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:25-35, 37
Romans 8:14-17
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

If someone says to you, “I am on fire today!” you’re apt to say, “Good for you!” because it means they’re doing a really good job at something.  Accomplishing lots of tasks.  Being extra efficient.  Making lots of sales.  That kind of thing.  On the other hand, if you hear someone screaming “I’m on fire!” you’re probably going to be reaching for a bucket of water.  Same phrase, “I’m on fire,” but a completely different response is called for.  And you certainly don’t want to get the responses mixed up!

In today’s first reading, from the book of Acts, we heard again the story of the first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples in the form of tongues of fire.  It’s a bizarre scene: tongues of fire appearing on their heads, and they all start speaking in languages they have never spoken before.  And the cynics standing around sneer and say, these people are drunk!  And Peter’s response is even more bizarre, because he claims the reason they cannot be drunk is because it is only 9 o’clock in the morning!  (Apparently Peter has never sat next to a business traveler on an airplane before.)  But back to the cynics.  I have to say, it makes me laugh every time I hear this story, because the implication is that, when people get drunk at 9 in the morning, tongues of fire appear on their heads, and they instantly become fluent in every language known to man.  As if, being drunk . . . well that explains what we’re seeing and hearing here.  You know, cops could just pull people over and check their heads for flames, right?

Obviously, the bystanders are missing the whole point of what they’re experiencing, and they’re grasping at straws for an explanation.  Searching for a way to explain something that is beyond explanation.  The Holy Spirit has been unleashed on the world in a completely new way, and nobody really knows what’s going on . . . to say the least.  The disciples are saying, “We are on fire,” and the bystanders are trying to throw buckets of water on them.  Wrong response.  This is a fire of excitement, and creation, and growth, and building up.  This is a fire that we welcome—the fire of God’s Holy Spirit.

And, as Christians, we’re used to thinking of the spirit in this way.  The Spirit of God fills us with energy and excitement.  The Spirit of God moves us forward in joy to accomplish great things in God’s name.  It’s about enthusiasm and growth and increasing the kingdom of God.  But that’s only a small sliver of the Spirit’s work in the world.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls this same Spirit, the “Advocate.”  But back to the enthusiasm . . .

If you’ve ever attended a worship service among charismatics, you’ve seen this energetic Spirit in action.  Churches that call themselves Pentecostal, or the Assemblies of God churches have these kinds of services, where people speak in tongues, and are slain in the Spirit.  It’s all very dramatic and emotional and—I have to admit—suspicious, to many of us.  Nothing could be further away from our Episcopal Church service than for people to start speaking in tongues and dancing around, fainting in fits of ecstatic joy.  I mean, it’s just not in the Prayer Book; there’s no rubric for it, sorry.

But, for those churches that worship in this way, the people are experiencing another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  A modern-day Pentecost.  They are receiving a weekly dose of God’s mysterious power, and they can’t imagine worshiping any other way.  And most of the rest of us could not imagine ourselves acting like that, and have no idea what is going on with these people.  (We might even accuse them of being drunk at 9 o’clock in the morning!)  And at the same time, Pentecostals might not consider what we do each week to be real worship.  They might say the visible evidence of the Spirit is not present in our worship services, and that we’re missing the point of coming together on Sunday morning if we’re not re-enacting this scene from the second chapter of Acts.

So, we can’t help but ask the question . . . who’s right here?  Are we missing out on authentic worship because we’re not speaking in tongues and experiencing miraculous healings in our midst?  Or are they missing out in not having a weekly celebration of communion with God and one another?  Are we ignoring the Spirit?  Are they ignoring the resurrected Christ?  We’d like to be able to say one of us is right, and the other one is wrong, but it’s never that simple, is it?  But then we have to ask, if neither worship style is right or wrong . . . well, how can we be so very different from each another?

Well, maybe it has to do with the idea that God is revealed in different ways to different people at different times in different places.  We tend to want to limit God to be completely explained by our own understanding, revealed in our own community, present in our own worship space.  But deep down, we know God is bigger than that.  We know that God’s love is for all people, in all times, and in all places.

The Holy Spirit is the one inspiring us to action, and giving us a sense of urgency in our mission.  The Holy Spirit is the one telling us to get out there and run!  But at the same time, the Holy Spirit is also the one telling us to rest and be healed, to reflect and be restored.  The Holy Spirit fills us with excitement, but also calms us down.  On some occasions the Holy Spirit is saying, “You’re on fire for God!  You’re on a roll!”  And at other times the Holy Spirit is saying, “You’re on fire!  Stop, drop, and roll!”  Same Spirit, different kinds of fire.

And prayerful discernment in community is how we know which kind of fire we have at any given time.  Oh, sure, sometimes the fire is obvious.  Sometimes our excitement cannot be contained and we find ourselves rambling on about the goodness of God in our lives.  But, a lot of times, it’s equally obvious that we are barely holding on, and God is holding us and propping us up, giving us the strength to face the challenges of another day.  Being open to the power of God’s Spirit does not mean we are constantly on fire with excitement.  It also means being open to God’s healing power that can best be experienced in silence, or calm conversation.

Some people spend their whole lives as one big ball of fire testifying to God’s unstoppable Spirit.  And some spend their lives in quiet despair, hoping that God will give us the strength to climb out of bed in the morning.  Most of us are in the middle of those two, or we move back and forth between them . . . you know, some days are great, and some are not so great.  Individual people are different.  We need different things.  On different days.

And what about our community?  What about the Holy Spirit and St. Timothy’s Church?  Do we need to choose between enthusiasm and peace?  Between exciting growth and boring stability?  Well, the fallacy in that question lies in the word “choose.”  I think we’re most apt to get off track when we think it is up to us.  That we are the ones somehow choosing what kind of church we will be, choosing how the Spirit will act among us.  Quite honestly, it is not up to us.  It’s not about what we want.  If God wants St. Timothy’s Church to grow, we will grow, possibly in spite of what we do.  And if not . . . well, we won’t grow, also in spite of what we do.  In either case, God will show the way to be the unique congregation St. Timothy’s is called to be—and has been called to be for 182 years—doing what we alone are called to do. As Paul says, God gives the growth.

In today’s Gospel reading, from John, Jesus says, “When the Advocate comes, he will testify on my behalf.”  And, in case we miss the point, we’ve got this dramatic entrance of the Holy Spirit on the heads of the disciples.  The Advocate shows up, alright . . . just as Jesus promised.  But the Spirit doesn’t show up with seven highly effective habits.  Jesus is not sending the church-growth expert.  This Advocate, this Holy Spirit, comes to advocate to our hearts, not to convict.  And this is a crucial point.  The Holy Spirit leads us to testify for Jesus, sure.  But, more importantly, the Holy Spirit makes the case for Jesus to us, and assures us of God’s love and salvation.  The Spirit advocates to the Church as well as for the Church.

Just as there are many different kinds of people, there are also many different kinds of parishes, filling many different kinds of needs.  But it is the same Spirit in all of them.  The same Spirit that leads some to speak in tongues leads others to recite the Nicene Creed.  The same spirit that makes some stand on a street corner with a Bible, makes others quietly polish candlesticks to place on an altar.  And the same Spirit that causes flames to appear on the heads of the disciples, causes bread to appear in our hands this morning.  And just as the disciples did nothing to deserve the Spirit, we do nothing to warrant or deserve the gift of God’s presence.  All we can do is reach out our hands in faith, and trust that the Father is with us, just as Jesus promised, and that the Advocate is with us, just as Jesus promised, and that Jesus is present in the bread and wine, just as Jesus promised.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 7

Easter 7, 2018
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26
1 John 5:9-13
John 17:6-19
Psalm 1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Many times, when a preacher wants to use a story to make a point, the preacher will begin with, “The story is often told,” and then they tell the story.  It’s probably not really a story often told, and it’s probably not even a true story, but it gets the preacher’s point across, and might also have the advantage of staying with the listeners after they leave church that day.

So . . . the story is often told of a priest who took a call to a church, and he had a cat.  And since the rectory was attached to the church, the priest’s cat would wander around the sanctuary, occasionally disrupting the service.  So the priest asked the altar guild to tie up the cat during services, so that it wouldn’t disrupt things.  This situation worked well for years, and the priest eventually passed away; then a new priest came to the church.  Since the cat had outlived the previous priest, the altar guild took over caring for the cat, and every Sunday morning they would tie up the cat during services.

Eventually, of course, the cat also died.  Shortly after that, the altar guild asked to meet with the new priest and explained that they needed some extra money in order to continue to do things properly to prepare for services.  Thinking they must need new linens or something, the priest asked if they couldn’t just put the supplies on the account like usual.  The head of the altar guild responded that the church didn’t have an account with the animal shelter, and they needed to get a new cat to tie up in the sacristy before services.

I was reminded of this story when I was thinking about today’s first reading, from the book of Acts.  Peter stands up and announces that they must pick someone to replace Judas, so that they will once again have 12 Apostles.  And I got to thinking, why twelve?  Why not eleven?  Or twenty?  As far as we can tell, there’s no commandment from Jesus to have 12 Apostles.  It’s not like they had three bridge games going, right?  As best I can tell, the Apostles are assuming they need to be 12 in number because they had always been 12 in number.  You know, it’s the way we’ve always done things.  Classic church approach, right from the very beginning!

And then, they use the strangest method of choosing the new member.  Since they can’t decide, they cast lots.  Which is essentially like flipping a coin, to you and me.  But before they flip the coin, they ask God to “show us which one of these two you have chosen.”  It’s curious, to say the least, and feels a little bit like some kind of magic spell, to our modern ears.  I mean, this is not how we elect Vestry members, right?  Church governance by a roll of the dice?  On the other hand, when you consider things, it is kind of how we elect Vestry members.  We pray that God would direct our decision and voting so that we can choose the right person, and we cast ballots instead of lots.

But here’s the thing about that scene.  It really does mirror what we do as the church—not in the specifics, of course, but in the philosophy.  The disciples decided there had to be twelve of them because there had always been twelve of them, and then they trust that God will guide them into doing the right thing.  In a similar way, we often continue to do what we have always done, trusting that God will guide us into doing the right thing.  On a surface level, there is comfort in continuity, yes.  But on a deeper level, God works through continuity.  We don’t have a habit of shaking things up just for the purpose of shaking things up.  At least not in the Episcopal Church.

In the repetition of the words of the liturgy, in the maintaining of our sacred worship space, in the weekly pattern of showing up at 8am every Sunday morning, that continuity and familiarity is fertile ground for God to guide us into the future.  If every week you came to church and found I had moved the Altar to a different place in the room, or wrote up a new liturgy on the fly each Sunday, or let my cats run loose in the sanctuary, or—God forbid—brought in a rock band on random Sundays, you would be distracted, I’m sure.  You would feel unsettled, maybe even untethered.  It is hard to hear the voice of God when your world is all askew . . . and when you’re also silently planning how to set up a new call committee to replace the Rector.

God works in the familiar, is my point.  When we feel stable, and secure, and cared for, that is when we can thrive and grow.  Which naturally leads me to remind us that today is Mother’s Day.  Now I know that every person’s relationship with their mother—whether biological or adopted—is different.  Some have great relationships and memories, and some have nothing but pain and anxiety when they think of their mothers.  But I hope we can all agree that, at least in the ideal, our mothers provide stability, security, and care, which allows us to thrive and grow.  It’s no coincidence that Christians through the centuries use the term Mother Church.  When we feel stable, and secure, and cared for, that is when we can thrive and grow.

I want to draw our attention to the prayer from Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  Taken as a whole, it is often called his “High Priestly Prayer,” because he is praying for his disciples, and interceding for them, as something like a priest.  This prayer takes up all of Chapter 17 in John’s gospel, and the whole prayer is on behalf of his disciples, which includes me and you.  And having this prayer fall on Mother’s Day is just the most lovely coincidence.

Notice the mothering tone in these statements, and how you could imagine a devoted mother saying these things about her own children to God in prayer:

I have made your name known to those whom you gave me. They were yours, and you gave them to me.  Protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.  While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

It’s striking, isn’t it?  Jesus prays for us the way a loving mother might.  And that is fitting, of course, because in the best situation, this is what a mother wants for her children.  That they would get along, and be protected from evil.    That they would see that everything they have is a gift from God.  That they would know that their parents consider these children to be a gift from God.  Yes, I know, it doesn’t always work out that way, because our mothers are not Jesus.  Mothers are human, just as broken and struggling as everyone else.  AND, just as redeemed and forgiven as everyone else.

And, I just have to say, it’s interesting to me that, throughout history, one of the things mothers do is feed us.  I’m not big on assigning mandatory gender rolls, and I’m not doing that here.  I’m just talking generally and historically.  Mothers feed us.  And just as Jesus prayed for us, Jesus also feeds us, and sends us out into the world.  So, come and feast, at the Altar of God.  And hear the prayer of Jesus, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  May we all go into the world, feeling stable, secure, cared for, and nourished, as God intends for us, and as Jesus prays for us to be.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 6

Easter 6, 2018
Acts 10:44-48
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17
Psalm 98

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Don’t take away my joy.  Have you ever heard somebody say that?  Don’t take away my joy?  When we first moved back to Ohio after seminary, we shared a duplex with another family where the husband also happened to be a pastor.  There was a lot of church on that corner in Shaker Heights.  And during those years, I was serving in a parish half the Sundays and traveling the other half of the Sundays.  At some point we were talking to the neighbors about getting to the airport, and the lady of the house said she could take me to the airport any time Cristin wasn’t available.  I sort of tried to imply that wasn’t necessary, since I could always take a cab.  But she was adamant and insisted that I call her if I ever needed a ride, and finished with “Don’t you take away my joy!”

It’s such an interesting phrase, isn’t it?  Notice that the phrase isn’t, “Don’t take away my happiness.”  That would mean something different, right?  (Taking away my happiness would make Thomas Jefferson very disappointed, since he says we each have the right to pursue happiness.)  But joy is different from happiness.  I might be happy when my team wins a championship, but I can get joy out of watching a sunset, or hearing a baby laugh, or giving someone a ride to the airport . . . apparently.  Happiness isn’t the same as joy.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the disciples, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  Now I have to stop here for a second and remind us of the scene.  Even though you and I are still in the Easter season right now, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, this gospel reading comes from before Jesus is put to death.  The actual setting is the last supper, after Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet.  Jesus is kind of giving them a sermon, explaining what he has done, and what they should do, and what the future holds for them.

And in this section, he keeps telling his disciples to abide in his love, and to love and serve one another, and says, if we keep his commandments, we will abide in his love.  And what is the commandment of Jesus?  Well, he tells us:  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.  It’s like a math problem.  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.

Loving your neighbor leads to abiding in God’s love.  And why does Jesus tell us this?  “So that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  Notice how there’s nothing about happiness in there.  And I think that’s significant because of the setting.  This is the last supper.  Jesus knows he is about to be betrayed, and abandoned, and denied, and nailed to a cross.  He is most certainly not “happy.”  And yet, he has joy.  Whatever Jesus means when he says, “my joy,” it sounds like something you and I could use a whole lot more of, right?

The joy of Jesus persists in the midst of the darkest time in his life.  The joy of Jesus does not depend on the circumstances of his life.  The joy of Jesus transcends the worst that humanity has to offer.  Yes, Jesus, give us more of that joy!  That’s the kind of joy we need in these bizarre and divisive times.  That’s the kind of joy we need when we lose loved ones, when relationships fall apart, when our finances aren’t working out.  The joy of Jesus transcends all these things and more.  We need the joy of Jesus in us so that our joy may be complete.

And that math problem is how we get there.  If we love one another, we will be keeping the commandments of Jesus, and we will  therefore abide in his love.  And the reason Jesus gives us that formula is so that his joy may be in us and our joy may be complete.  Do you want the kind of complete joy that transcends the darkest times in your life?  Then love your neighbor.  Do you want the kind of joy that brings peace in the midst of fear and anger?  Then love one another as Jesus has loved us.  Love leads to joy, and joy leads to peace.

But here is my favorite part of the gospel text:  Jesus says, "You did not choose me but I chose you.”  It’s a simple little statement that kind of flies by in the context of all these math problems in this text.  You did not choose me but I chose you.  That’s the kind of thing we should print on banners and hang of the front of the church!  Because that is the best news any of us is ever going to get.

We like to think that we decide to follow Jesus.  In fact, just the other day at the clergy conference, one of the songs at the closing worship service said exactly that.  We were all standing there singing, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  And--because I have been thinking about this gospel text this week--I kept imagining Jesus tapping us all on the shoulder and saying, “Ahem.  Hey you guys.  You did not choose me but I chose you.”  Which, as I say, is very good news!

And the reason that is good news is because of this:  If I can decide to follow Jesus, then I can decide not to follow Jesus.  If it is up to me to choose Jesus, then most days I will be making the wrong choice.  I confess to you my brothers and sisters that I am not up to choosing Jesus most days of my life.  And if you’re anything like me, you could say the same.  We cannot decide to follow Jesus of our own strength and determination.  And Jesus says to you and me, “that’s okay, actually, because you did not choose me; I chose you.”  And that is good news indeed!

Jesus chose you.  And Jesus wants for his joy to be in you, and for your joy to be complete.  And the way to that complete joy is in loving your neighbor, in laying down your life for others.

Have you ever wondered why people volunteer at soup kitchens?  Or drive neighbors to doctors appointments?  Or go on mission trips to developing nations?  Or teach Sunday school?  Or clean up after events in our parish hall?  I know the answer:  because it brings them joy.  Serving our neighbor gives us joy, just like Jesus said it would.

Now there’s a very old school of thought on this that is not helpful, and it goes like this.  If you get any personal satisfaction out of doing things for other people, then you are doing it for the wrong reason.  If it brings joy to serve others, then that is sinful.  And, sure, you can make that ethical argument, based on logic, and sacrificial giving, and that sounds like a pretty depressing way to live.  But good luck with that.

Instead, I choose to believe the words of Jesus.  That he wants us to have joy in our lives.  That serving others is the pathway to that joy.  Don’t take away my joy!  The lady living next door to us was really onto something with that phrase.  By not letting her help me when I needed help, I was taking away her joy.  Is it selfish to want that joy?  I don’t know.  Maybe?  But Jesus wants us to have that joy, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.

Jesus says: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  And, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”  And so my prayer for you is this: May your joy increase as you love and serve one another in the name of Jesus


Sunday, April 29, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 5

Easter 5, 2018
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

As you surely know by now, I used to play in a band for a living.  And in our band, whenever one of us would start explaining what a song means before playing the song, the other of us would point out:  If a band has to explain its songs before it plays them, the band should probably just write better songs.

And maybe you’ve seen something like this happening in your own life now and then.  You tell a group of people a really good story, and then someone in the group feels the need to explain why that was such a good story.  And you’re like, “Hey!  The story speaks for itself.  I don’t need you to come along and tell everybody why that was a good story!”

Well, that’s how the lessons are for this Sunday.  If I stand up here and tell you why the story about Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a good story, I honestly think it takes away from how great the story is.  Likewise, if I try to explain that the reading from First John is all about love and how God loved us first and that’s what makes us able to love one another and . . . Well, I think it would only be a distraction from the power of that little snippet of this letter.  It’s almost like, a better sermon would be to read that lesson again and then have us all just think about what a great little sermon that reading is.

And then, there’s this gospel reading.  You know, Jesus and the vines and the branches and all that.  Powerful imagery and--to be blunt--kind of obvious, right?  Branches can’t grow unless they’re connected to the vine.  Jesus is the vine.  Sooooo . . . Amen then.

My point is this:  over-explaining any of these three readings is not going to be helpful, and--in my own view--runs the risk of taking something away from them.  And so, this Sunday, I’m just going to offer a few observations about the lessons . . . Things that might not be obvious, but might be helpful to know.

In the first reading, from the book of Acts, the Ethiopian Eunuch has gone up to Jerusalem to worship, and is on his way back home.  Now, an Ethiopian Eunuch would not be allowed into the Temple to worship for two reasons:  He’s an Ethiopian and he’s a Eunuch.  A double outcast has gone up to worship anyway, even though he will be rejected from the assembly.  And, in the person of Philip--at the prompting of the Spirit--God comes to him anyway.  And in such a powerful way that he asks to be baptized that very day.  From absolute outcast to Christian disciple during one short chariot ride.  And all because the Spirit led Philip to the right place at the right time.  Philip’s will was aligned with the will of God.

In the second reading, from First John, it’s all just a riff on this idea:  God is love.  When we abide in God, we abide in love.  And abiding in love leads to all sorts of great things, like serving our neighbor, and finding that fear has been cast out.  The point is not that we love God, but that God loves us.  And the reason we love at all is because God first loved us.  Any good that we do is because of the love of God working in us.  The Spirit leads us, as the Spirit led Philip, and then God does what God does, because God is love.  You recall, any time we make a promise it is always accompanied by the phrase, “With God’s help.”  Apart from God we can do nothing, which leads us to the Gospel reading for today . . .

Jesus is the vine.  You are the branches.  This is a pretty obvious analogy, right?  I mean, if a branch gets cut off from the tree, it dies.  To stay alive it must stay connected to the tree.  And here’s a case where it’s important to look at the actual words as they’re recorded.  We lose something in English because we don’t have a way to make the word “you” into a plural.  Well, unless we’re from the south, in which case you’ve got “y’all” to work with.  The point is, what Jesus is saying here is “I am the vine, and you all are the branches.  You all remain in me and you all bear fruit.”

And why is that important?  Because it’s not about individuals remaining hooked into Jesus; it is about the community of believers remaining connected to Jesus.  Jesus says, “apart from me, you all can do nothing.”  Apart from Jesus, our parish can do nothing?  Well that’s not true, right?  If we didn’t have Jesus we could still gather in this space, and we could have festive dinners together, and we could even collect snacks for the Challenger baseball program.  We could still do good works without Jesus right?

Well, maybe what Jesus is saying is that those kinds of good works, that kind of fruit will be gathered up and thrown into the fire to be burned.  For us, those who have been cleansed by his words—as he says—the value of what we do comes from being connected to Jesus.  We could spend a whole bunch of time being busy and active and doing things, but if we’re not connected to Jesus, those things are pointless . . . They’ll be gathered up and burned.

And then here comes the amazing part . . . The tricky part . . . The part that makes us go, “What?”

Jesus says, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”  It’s tempting to take this to mean, If I remain in Jesus, and I ask for a new bicycle, I will get one tomorrow.  If you abide in me, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  Okay, I wish to win the lottery this afternoon so that I can give all the money to St. Timothy’s Church so we can fix up our building and start new programs so that we can continue to abide in you.  In Jesus name, Amen.

Seems like a slam-dunk, doesn’t it?  Something we want for all the right reasons, rooted in the continued abiding in Jesus?  But what’s missing from this is seeking the will of God.  If we want to do the will of God, we will inevitably run into this nagging question:  What is the will of God?  Every week (and hopefully more often than that), we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.”  Why are we praying for God’s will to be done?  That’s kind of silly isn’t it?  Praying that the will of God would be done?

I want to tell you a little story . . . And don’t you dare try to explain what it means when I’m done, because it’s a good story, understand?  Way back before I ever went to seminary, the first step in that process was to go meet with my Rector a few times.  Just the two of us.  And I hated those meetings!  He asked very hard questions, and he never told me whether I was answering correctly.  But one question came up over and over, because it really was the point of our meetings.  And that question was this:  How do I know if becoming a priest is God’s will for me?  How can I be sure?

The answer—simple, and yet as profound as can be—is this: If my will is aligned with God’s will, then I want what God wants.  When my will is also God’s will, then I want what God wants.  I will go where God wants me to go.  I will be who God wants me to be.

If we abide in Jesus, we will want what God wants.  Or, as Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”  Staying connected to Jesus is the key.  Abiding in Jesus leads us to want what God wants.  And so, you’re asking, how do we abide in Jesus?  The answer is, I will with God’s help.  In the promises we make at Baptism, it is spelled out for us.  You could turn to page 304 in your Prayer Book and look up your responses, if you like, but your answer is always the same: “I will, with God’s help.”  Let’s try . . .

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? 
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
And so I ask you . . .
Will you abide in Jesus?


Sunday, April 22, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 4

Easter 4, 2018
Acts 4:5-12
1 John 3:16-24
John 10:11-18
Psalm 23

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So, today is the fourth Sunday of Easter.  And, as happens every year, that means that today is also often called, “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  The reason for that is probably obvious, based on these readings.  Every year in our three-year cycle, we come to this Fourth Sunday of Easter and we get Psalm 23 (you know, The Lord is my Shepherd), and then a Gospel reading from John, where Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd.  The Gospel text is different in each of the three years, but the metaphor holds, and the Psalm remains the same (if I may paraphrase Led Zeppelin).

The easy parts of today’s readings are the shepherd parts.  And by that I mean, Psalm 23 is relatively straightforward, right?  And then in the Gospel text, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, and then makes a few comparisons between the Good Shepherd and the hired hand.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, whereas the hired hand runs away at the first sign of trouble because, well, he’s just a hired hand.  Making minimum wage or whatever.  So he values his own survival above that of the flock.  And we get that: he’s not ready to die for a bunch of sheep that aren’t even his.  However, as sheep, we’d prefer to have the Good Shepherd watching over us, right?  It’s comforting.  Like Psalm 23.  Comforting.

So now let’s leave behind the comforting parts of today’s lessons and move on to the other parts.  The first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, just sort of starts in the middle of a story.  To set the scene, a man who cannot walk asks the disciples for money.  Then Peter quotes that familiar Sunday School song and says, “Silver and gold have I none;, but such as I have give I thee:  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.”  And the man does!  And the people are amazed.  Then the Sadducees and temple guard see the disciples explaining that it was by the power of the resurrection of Jesus that the man was healed, and they throw them in jail.

Time for an aside:  As you may remember, the Sadducees are the religious sect who do not believe in the resurrection of anyone.  That is, they believed that when you die, you are dead.  Period.  So, what the disciples are telling the people threatens everything they believe in.  Because not only are the disciples claiming that Jesus rose from the dead, but they’re also saying that by the power of his resurrection, this man was healed!  So, clearly, they have them thrown in jail until they can sort it out.  And when Peter and John are called to explain themselves to the religious leaders, that’s where our reading picks up.

And the chief priest asks Peter and John, "By what power or by what name did you do this?”  Let me remind you, there was a guy who was lame from birth, and who spent every day begging for help, and now he is walking and leaping and praising God.  And the chief priest wants to know where they got their authority to heal the man.  And then I love how snarky Peter’s response begins:  “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed . . .”  And then he says, “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”  And then—I think as a dig to the Sadducees—he adds, “whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”  It is by the power of the resurrection that healing happens at all.  Ever.

The ultimate example of God’s healing is in bringing Jesus back to life.  Just think about that.  When Jesus heals someone’s arm, or cures blindness, or anything else, we could think of that as a hint, a teaser if you will, of the ultimate healing:  which is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.  Any other healing is only possible because of that victory over death.  And we can tie any reconciliation, any forgiveness, any new beginning to this same world-changing event.  The resurrection of Jesus is the heart of our faith.  Any power we have to do good, to help those in need, to heal a broken world, it all derives from the power of the resurrection working within us.

Like the disciples, you and I could say, “If we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed . . . this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”  Though we could shorten it I bet.  Something more like, “By God’s grace” would do.  Not by our good morals or personal awesomeness or generosity or anything else.  Any good we do is possible only because of the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

The second reading we heard today, from the first letter of John, he writes, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.”  I used to think this sentence meant, “This is how we know that Jesus loves us, because he laid down his life for us.”  But I have come to see that’s not what it means.  “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.”  It means, this is how we know what love is, you see?  Or put another way, we did not know what love was until we saw Jesus lay down his life for us.  And, therefore, the sentence continues:  “We ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

But we have to be careful not to forget what we just learned from the book of Acts.  It is not Jesus’ dying that heals; it is his resurrection that heals.  From the Gospel lesson today, Jesus says “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”  The resurrection of Jesus is what brings healing.  And because his victory over death is also our victory over death, we can lay down our lives for others, knowing that the healing power of God will raise us back up.  We can take the risk because we know the healing power of God, because of the resurrection of Jesus.

Now, let’s go to the thing that might have caught your attention most this morning:  Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  If you’re a Mormon, this sentence means that Jesus had to come to North America to convert the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations.  For the rest of us, sure, we might picture people living in other countries, or on other planets, or whatever.  In some sense, it doesn’t really matter what specific people Jesus is talking about here.  What matters is this . . .

The flock is not complete.  There are other sheep.  Jesus isn’t done yet, because everyone’s not here yet.  And this continues in our own day.  Sometimes we give it the scary name “evangelism,” but it is really just a matter of continuing to gather the sheep together, wherever they may be found, so there will be one flock, one shepherd, under the leadership of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  The one in whose name all healing is done.  The one whose Spirit inspires us to do great things in his name.  The one who leads us beside still waters, and comforts our souls.

As Peter said to the crowd:  “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  May God give us the grace to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd, and to follow wherever he may lead us.


Sunday, April 15, 2018

YEAR B 2018 easter 3

Easter 3, 2018
Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

So this gospel we just heard . . . You know, where Jesus shows up and asks for some fish?  It’s a very strange story isn’t it?  You can’t tell from that little section, but it comes hot on the heels of what we call “The Road to Emmaus.”  That was the time two disciples were walking on the road, and Jesus shows up, but they don’t know it’s him.  And then he starts explaining the scriptures to them, and breaks bread with them, they recognize him, and he disappears.  Remember that story?  Well that story leads us to this one.  Those same two disciples hurry back to tell the others, and then today we heard . . .While the disciples were telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, Jesus himself stood among them.

And the next line is?  “They were startled and terrified.”  Well, duh!  Scared half to death is probably more like it.  Have you ever had that experience where you’re talking about somebody and they’re suddenly standing next to you?  I just mentioned this in a sermon a couple months ago, in fact.  What do we say when someone we were talking about shows up?  We say “speak of the devil,” right?  In it’s full form, the saying is “speak of the devil and he doth appear.”  That phrase only goes back to the 1600’s in English, but there is some local variation of it all over the world.  And I bet there was a similar phrase back in Jesus’ day.  We need a saying like that because we get so freaked out when somebody is suddenly standing there, as we were just talking about them.  Saying, “speak of the devil” puts a happy little twist on a creepy moment, right?  Maybe lessens our paranoia a bit too.

So, now, ramp it up and imagine the person you were speaking of not only suddenly shows up, but was also dead the last time you looked.  The disciples are talking about Jesus, and he is suddenly standing there, saying “Peace be with you.”  Obviously, they think he’s a ghost, right?  Some kind of supernatural spirit kind of thing.  Speak of the Jesus, and he doth appear.  And then, as we heard, “They were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost.”  And I think we’d be on exactly the same page with them.

And then Jesus starts into this logical proof thing with them.  First, he reminds them that ghosts do not have flesh and bones, as he plainly does.  They’re starting to come around, and he asks if they have anything to eat.  They bring him some fish, and he eats it, and . . . Okay . . . So he’s not a ghost.  But that doesn’t explain how he suddenly is standing in the room.  To the disciples, their friend Jesus has been betrayed, killed, and buried.  Even if this Jesus is not a ghost, it doesn’t explain what he’s doing talking to them over a plate of fish.  Speak of the Jesus, and he doth appear.

And here’s why it’s so confusing to them, and why they are still disbelieving and wondering ashe’s talking to them:  They do not understand who Jesus is.  They know it’s Jesus they’re talking to, sure.  But they don’t know who he is.  They get the idea that he’s not a ghost, and that he is indeed their friend Jesus, and that he’s somehow back from the dead, but they do not understand why he’s standing there with them.  Beyond, you know, speak of the Jesus and he doth appear.

And then Jesus begins to make the connections for them.  He says, "When I was with you, I told you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled."  Then . . . Well, the phrase used here is, “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”  It’s hard to know what that means, to be honest, and it always makes me think of some kind of Jedi mind trick, which doesn’t help matters.  So, what does this mean, “He opened their minds?”  Well, we don’t know; so we have to take it at face value.  Somehow Jesus made them understand the scriptures in a way that they hadn’t before, right?  Somehow they now make a connection between their friend Jesus and the Messiah of the scriptures.

And putting it like that makes it sound like it’s no big deal.  It’s just a little mental leap in some sense, especially after your friend who was in a tomb yesterday has suddenly shown up in the room with you.  I mean, after that drama, a little Bible study doesn’t seem like a very important matter in the scheme of things.  So, yeah, speak of the Jesus, and he doth appear.  But why is that?

See, the “why” is the important question here.  Why does Jesus show up in the room with them?  Think about that question.  Does Jesus appear to prove his awesome powers of resurrection?  Does he show up to make his friends think he’s all cool and spiritual?  Or, put it in a different way:  If the disciples had turned to Jesus and asked, “Why are you here?” what do you think he would have told them?  Why have you come to us, Jesus?

And Jesus answers:  The Messiah is to suffer and to rise on the third day.  And they’re saying, right.  Got it.  And he continues, “and repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.”  And they think, okay, but what’s that got to do with you and us?  And Jesus finishes, “You are witnesses of these things.”

These things have come true right in front of your eyes.  Jesus is telling them:  He is the Messiah!  They are witnesses of the scriptures being fulfilled, the very scriptures that tell us the Messiah has come.  Speak of the Jesus, and the Messiah appears!

You see, the point here is not the sort of supernatural post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to his friends.  The point here, at least in this little passage, is that Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus is the one they have been waiting for their whole lives.  Their parents’, and grandparents’, and great grandparents’ whole lives for that matter.  Why is Jesus there with them?  To announce the good news that the Messiah has come, and repentance and forgiveness of sins are to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.

In his name, did you notice that?  In the name of Jesus, repentance and forgiveness are proclaimed.  Speak of the Jesus . . . And forgiveness appears.

Jesus shows up to the disciples to tell them that he is the Messiah.  And to remind them that forgiveness will be proclaimed in his name.  Why is he there in the room with them?  To tell them that the wait is over.  To tell them that they are witnesses.  To send them out with this good news of salvation, and restoration, and hope.

And what does this have to do with us, is the next question, right?  Since we’re speaking of the disciples, should we expect them to doth appear?  Well, let’s consider the overall arc of this gospel reading today.  The disciples are afraid.  Jesus joins them in a meal.  He opens their minds to the truth of the scriptures, and he sends them out as witnesses to God’s forgiveness.

It almost seems like a fair description of what we do on Sundays, doesn’t it?  We leave our crazy lives for an hour on a Sunday, and we gather in our little room, not really expecting Jesus to be showing up.  And then we find ourselves talking about Jesus and . . . Well, speak of the Jesus, and here he is!  Joining us in a meal of bread and wine, speaking to us through the scriptures, in the presence of our friends and neighbors.  And, sending us out to be witnesses that Jesus is the Messiah, proclaiming forgiveness in his name.

Jesus is risen; Jesus is the Messiah; and you are witnesses to these things.  Now it is your turn to go and announce forgiveness in his name.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Mary Regula, 11/29/26-4/5/18

For Mary Regula
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We gather together on this day to commend Mary into the care of God’s loving arms.  There will come another day when we will gather to celebrate Mary’s remarkable life and incredible accomplishments.  Today, we have met in this holy place to be reminded of her deep and abiding faith in God, and—more importantly—to be reminded of God’s unfailing love for Mary.  There are three things I want to share with you this morning.

First, a greeting.  I did not know Mary for very long, in the scheme of things.  But every time I visited her, starting two years ago, right up until the time she stopped speaking, she would always take my hand, look me in the eye, and ask, “From whence have you come?”  The best name I have for this is, “Regal Curiosity.”  From whence have you come?  I always wanted to say, “from hither and yon, M’lady.”  But I always answered truthfully:  From St. Timothy’s Church.  And every time I gave that answer, Mary’s eyes would light up.  She knew the place well, and even as her memory slipped away, she still recognized the name, and she would smile at the memory.

Second, a poem.  The very first time I visited Mary and Ralph at the farm in 2016, I sat down with them to chat and to bring them the Sacrament.  Several times during that first conversation, Mary quoted from a Robert Browning poem.  She wanted to be sure I understood how important it was to her.  And she would stop the conversation, and look me in the eye and quote two lines:  “Grow old along with me.  The best is yet to be.”  She was so insistent about this, that I looked up the poem as soon as I had time.

It’s a l-o-n-g poem, but Mary knew the best part, which is the first stanza:  “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made. Our times are in his hand who saith, 'A whole I planned, youth shows but half; Trust God: See all, nor be afraid!”  Mary and Ralph lived together fearlessly, embracing a full life, trusting God, seeing all.  A whole life together as God hoped, and they lived all of it.

Third, the Sacrament.  From my very first visit, after Mary took the bread—the body of Christ—she would weep.  Uncontrollable tears streaming down her cheeks.  Every time.  These were sacred, holy moments, and no one dared speak until Mary would open her eyes again.  Taking Communion was a transcendent experience for Mary, and I was honored and humbled to be the one who was blessed to bring it to her, over those few short months.  If I ever doubted whether Jesus was truly present in the Sacrament, a short drive down to Navarre would set me straight.

The greeting, the poem, and the Sacrament.  These are the three things I will always remember about Mary.  And you could give these things different names: people, abundant life, and Jesus.  These are the three things that Mary was passionate about, and—it’s no coincidence—these are the same things that God is most passionate about: people, abundant life, and Jesus.  Mary lived a life attuned to God’s will.  She cared about people, she wanted people to live the fullest life possible, and she knew that, somehow, Jesus came to her in the sacrament.

Mary’s life was an inspiration yes.  But her faith in God is what made it so.  Jesus said:  “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.”  Mary surely has come to Jesus.  And if Jesus asks her, “From whence have you come?”  She can say with confidence, “From a life well-lived, and people well-loved:  a life well-pleasing to God.”