Message Archive

Sermons

11
Jun

Embraced by the Holy Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2:4a 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 Matthew 28:16-20 Psalm 8

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.

Many years ago, on an “ordinary Sunday,” as was our tradition, our family attended worship at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Raleigh.  It was the day of a baptism; I have no recollection of the identity of the child being baptized; in fact, I don’t remember anything else about the service except for one particular seemingly simple, mostly unnoticeable incident on that day that carried a profound message of welcoming embrace – a slice of life on which I continue to reflect especially as it relates to our baptism. 

The baptismal font at the Church of the Good Shepherd is (or was) in a small raised niche to the far right of the main altar.  At all baptisms the children in attendance are invited to come and gather around the baptismal font for a close up view of the baptismal sacrament. 

On this day, as the celebrant gathered the children into a circle around the font, two preteen girls in their summer gingham were standing side by side with their backs to the congregation.  Getting settled, one of the two glanced back to see another girl of similar description approaching.  She drew in her breath and her eyes brightened at the sight of another friend coming forward.  Tapping the shoulder of her circle mate, she pointed discreetly to the approaching friend; her whispered words were clear to anyone watching closely, “Look who’s here!”  The delight of all three was palpable as the circle parted, the friend was embraced into the circle, and the attention of all turned once again to the focus of the celebration as yet another of God’s children was baptized into the Body of Christ.

We find similar theological reflection of even greater welcome and embrace into the kingdom in the Holy Trinity, which we celebrate today on this principal feast of the Church.  In one example, this welcome and embrace is depicted in the fifteenth century Russian icon by Andrei Rublev entitled “The Holy Trinity.”  The famous quite familiar icon depicts three rather primitive characters with rudimentary angel wings seated on three sides of a square table.  The characters obviously share mutual respect and affection; they are three distinct characters yet their wings are overlapping as they are united in relationship by their mission symbolized in their shared presence at the table.

Significantly, the fourth side of the table – the seat open to the viewer – has no occupant.  This fourth side remains open for the viewer; one could perceive that the other occupants are gazing expectantly toward the empty seat; these three seated at the table invite the viewer to join and complete their circle.  I love imagining one in the group whispering to the others, “Hey, look who’s here!’ as each of us is welcomed and embraced into the sacred setting – the fourth who completes the circle of God in three persons – each of us as the fourth within the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the Holy Trinity.

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – was not known to the Apostle Paul or even, in these terms, by Jesus.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was not conceptualized until centuries after the earthly life of Jesus and the Apostle Paul.  Yet, Paul, at the conclusion of his second letter to the people of Corinth, expressed his understanding of the three persons of the Holy Trinity as he ended with the beautiful benedictory words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” 

And, similarly, Jesus in his last words to the disciples commissioned them to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 

The doctrine of the Holy Trinity was conceptualized by the early Church as Christians began more and more to seek a clearer understanding of their relationship with God – finding their place at the table.  As our faith journey leads us to greater depths, we seek a more tangible understanding of what it is to be God’s children.  How is it that God desires and provides what is best for us?  In the most basic simple terms we glory in the one inseparable God who, through the grace and mercy of the Father, creates us; who, through the Son, redeems us; and who, through the Holy Spirit, sustains us.

The three persons of the Holy Trinity depicted by Rublev do not sit at a tiny separated table with their attention and their gaze trained upon one another, ignoring all else as if their purpose is serving one another.  The three wait expectantly, beckoning each of us to join them – to complete the circle – to open our lives to the love of God the Father, our creator; the grace of Jesus Christ, our redeemer; and the communion of the Holy Spirit, our sustainer.   

All three were present in God at creation.  As we read this morning in the account of creation, God’s breath swept across the formless void, separating the dry land from the waters and day from night, bringing light to the darkness, bringing life to every plant yielding seed and to all creatures of the air, land, and sea.  And, then, one the 6th day, God created humankind – as we are created we are embraced by God’s glorious creation that awaits us, AND we are given responsibility for the care of all creation.

The three persons of the Holy Trinity embrace each of us as the three meld together into one God.  Like the rainbow, we cannot distinguish endings or beginnings; they meld into one another and embrace us into their eternal existence.

In our baptism by water and the Holy Spirit, we are embraced into the Body of Christ.  Our place at the table is a place of welcome and, therefore, a place of responsibility.  In his last earthly words to his disciples, Jesus leaves to all of us the Great Commission: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey all things that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you in all ways and for all time, to the end of the age.” 

 

Trinity Sunday

04
Jun

Comfort Rooms

 Numbers 11:24-30 Acts 2:1-21 John 20:19-23 Psalm 104:25-35, 37

Jesus said, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  [John 20:23]

Pentecost has come; we celebrate the presence of the Holy Spirit in every element of creation.  The spirit finds us and speaks to us wherever we are, in whatever language we understand.  The Holy Spirit embraced this eclectic group of followers gathered on this Day of Pentecost, which is described for us in our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.  The Holy Spirit comes in the very same Breath of God that created the world. 

Listen!  Do you hear the Breath?  Do you feel the presence of the Holy Spirit – bringing you peace; inspiring you to follow the will of God in all that you do?  Be still mind; be still heart – for just a moment.  The Holy Spirit surrounds us, embraces us; the Holy Spirit is seeking to speak to you.

Yikes!!  There is something in all of us that is a little fearful of the movement of the Holy Spirit.  We ARE known as the “Frozen Chosen.”  Best to stay busy and not risk any odd sensations of spiritual direction.  Pentecostalism is an “ism” we prefer to avoid exploring.  It carries connotations of lots of noise and strange actions that frighten us. 

In reality, though, being open to the Pentecostal presence of the Spirit requires quietude.  That’s scary too!  What do we do with quiet?

Disappointingly, I learned on Tuesday that my Yin Yoga class was being cancelled.  Attendance had waned and the class is no longer viable.  My only classmates on Thursday were a 6’7” lean Marine and a very young-looking Naval officer retiring this month.

Yin Yoga is a slow-paced Yoga in which participants hold stress-reducing poses for several minutes.   In my case, I was led into a full hour of quiet meditation while allowing muscles and joints a gentle healthy morning stretch.  Oh, well, it couldn’t last.  My guess is that attendance waned because quietude and relaxation are undervalued. 

Our lives are so stressfully full, we have no time to devote to intentional healthy stress reduction through quietude and stillness.  Simply put, we are too stressed to reduce stress; we fear quietude.

Bearing this concern, my attention was attracted to an article in a newsletter from Jackson-Feild Behavioral Health Services regarding “comfort rooms.”  Jackson-Feild began as a facility to care for children orphaned by the yellow fever epidemic of the mid-1800s.  The foundation has evolved over the decades to keep their mission current in addressing the ever-changing critical needs of children.  Today, JFBHS’s primary mission is directed toward the specific needs of children affected by severe trauma and abuse.  Our parish supports this effort with yearly contributions and I encourage you to go to the website for more information about this significant ministry: http://www.jacksonfeild.org .

Toward this effort to address trauma and abuse, the JFBHS article describes the provision of “Comfort Rooms” in JFBHS locations.  The comfort rooms are designed to be places of reduced stress, agitation, and aggressive behavior.  Comfort rooms have come to be recognized as successful avenues for calming aggressive children who might previously have been subjected to seclusion or physical restraint, often leading to further emotional and physical injury. 

Comfort rooms, characteristically, are inviting atmospheres – usually painted pastel green and supplied with chalkboard walls, cozy carpeting and comfortable furniture, relaxing music, and attention-stimulating activities such as puzzles, stress balls, and drawing materials.  The goal is to bring calm through the stimulation of the senses in a healthy manner rather than attempting calm through efforts that stifle the senses – as would restraint or isolation in a bare room.  The comfort rooms provide a safe contained environment in which a child may willingly spend time while developing healthy coping skills through natural processes – thus more safely and successfully reducing aggressive behavior.

This concept of “comfort rooms” is increasingly important for all of us of all ages.  The inability to focus attention for any significant period of time, previously an expectation of youth, now creeps upward into older age groups, promoting more aggressive behavior.  Yet, we get fidgety when we are called into quiet reflection.  No please!  Don’t leave me alone with my thoughts!! 

Being out of reach of our cell phones is a cause for panic.  Look around you when you are stopped at a red light.  Can you find anyone who is not talking on the phone or texting or otherwise fidgeting with an electronic device – double-booking every moment?  Crash statistics indicate these activities are not reserved for stopped traffic.

We all need a “comfort room” – an established space away from “the world” where we are drawn into the quiet, being inspired to experience the presence and direction of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is our comfort room – Jesus promised as he was leaving his earthly ministry that he would not leave us comfortless. 

We see this loss of our ability to grasp fleeting moments of quiet and relaxation taking a heavy toll on our society, culminating in ever-increasing anger and aggression in opposition to God’s will for our daily lives.  God through the Holy Spirit is everywhere, but it is good to seek God first in our “comfort rooms” where we can be still and listen to God’s voice through the breath of the Holy Spirit – that same breath that breathed us into creation.  

As the psalmist acknowledges in speaking of God in the Holy Spirit:

You hide your face, and they are terrified;

            you take away their breath,
and they die and return to their dust.

You send forth your Spirit, and they are created;
and so you renew the face of the earth.  [Psalm 104:30-31]

 

Find your comfort room – your source for the breath of creation.  In that space, we can be still and sense the presence of God’s power as we are embraced in the breath of the Holy Spirit – the Breath of Creation.  Go there for God’s guidance toward peace and relaxation and call to ministry as the Holy Spirit directs us in our relationships with one another.  In the presence of the Holy Spirit, the peace of the world is our path.  Receive the Holy Spirit; peace be with you.

25
May

Looking Up

Acts 1:1-11  Ephesians 1:15-23 Luke 24:44-53 Psalm 47

There is a lot of imagery associated with “looking up.”  It’s good when things are “looking up” after we have been through a difficult time. 

If you have posed for a group photo lately, it is likely that the photographer was placed on a higher level, either with a very tall ladder or on some upper landing of a stairs.  All this is to capture you looking up, which is said to be our most photogenic angle.  As I look out onto this audience, I see you looking up, and I can report that you are appearing most photogenic. 

We can imagine that Jesus’ crowd of followers looking up as he ascended to the Father was a most beautiful sight.  Did they wave and blow kisses?  I’m not sure what the proper send off words are for someone who is ascending into heaven.

In preparation for Ascension Day, thinking of looking up, I have had this recurring vision of the hot air balloon carrying the Wizard of Oz as it lifts up above a chaotic and panic-stricken scene.  As the story goes, acknowledging Dorothy’s homesickness and desperation to return home to Kansas, the wizard wants to make amends for his bad behavior.  Thus, he pronounces that he is a balloonist and a Kansas man himself; he pledges to return Dorothy to her home.

The balloon is prepared and the plans ensue, but things don’t quite work out as intended.  As the wizard and Dorothy wave their tearful goodbyes and begin their sensational departure, Toto jumps out of the gondola to chase a cat, and of course, Dorothy jumps out behind him, leaving the wizard alone in the balloon as it rises uncontrollably out of reach above Dorothy and her newfound friends – all of whom are crestfallen that Dorothy’s one means of returning home has been foiled.  They stand looking up in a state of hopeless defeat – their dream lost.

Chaos and panic and hopeless defeat surely were not in the atmosphere of the scene as the disciples stood by while Jesus was carried up into heaven.  In his words recorded in the Book of Acts, Luke adds that a cloud took Jesus out of their sight.  Here, two men in white robes appear, perhaps Moses and Elijah, who had accompanied Jesus at the Transfiguration where they were overshadowed by a cloud through which God spoke.  As we read in 2nd Kings, Elijah himself, had gone to heaven in a whirlwind as Elisha stood looking up – watching and crying and tearing his clothes as his mentor disappeared.  Yet, quite calmly, Elisha picks up the mantle that had fallen from Elijah, the mantle – the mission – that now became Elisha’s mission.

In this scene of Jesus’ Ascension described in our Gospel account, there is no crying or tearing of clothes; Luke describes a setting that is quite calm, a silent suspension of time – no efforts to hold Jesus back.  Yet, as for Elisha we are aware of a critical turning point for these timid followers – a turning point that requires our attention on this day, a turning point critical to our understanding of our calling to Christian ministry – and we are ALL called to ministry. 

Jesus’ last words of instruction had opened the minds of the disciples; they knew this leaving was not hopeless defeat or loss of their dream – that it was, in fact, the beginning of an expanded journey.  Once Jesus was taken up, we are told, the disciples worshipped him and returned to Temple where they praised God.  They understood that Jesus’ ministry was not ending as their leader and teacher ascended into heaven; Jesus’ ministry was now transitioned to those followers who stood looking up.  “Disciples” – students were now “Apostles” – messengers of the Good News.

As Christ ascended into heaven these first followers turned to the mission to which they were called.  This Ascension, which we celebrate today as one of the seven principal feasts of the Church, is not simply a major feast to be celebrated on this 40th day of Easter each year, it is the day that the mantle of the Christian mission is laid before us.  None of our feasts is less emphasized yet more important than Ascension.  Will we pick up the mantle of the Christian mission as Elisha picked up the mantle of Elijah’s mission?

In their state of despair, Dorothy and her friends come to understand that Dorothy has all along within herself the capacity to return home whenever she wishes.  Glenda the Good Witch reveals the power of the ruby slippers, prompting Dorothy to click her heels together and chant: “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”  Magically, Dorothy is transported back to her bedroom where she looks up into the faces of concerned family and friends.

Our calling to Christian ministry is not quite as simple as clicking our heels together.  But, like Dorothy and Elisha that ability to further the mission is within us; the responsibility is ours; the mantle is handed down to us.  As we are one with Jesus Christ, we carry the Christian mission within us. 

We come together as one Body of Christ sharing in the communion of that Body and Blood that unites us all, regardless of our faith tradition.  We came to gather in this assembly to celebrate the Ascension.  But, we did not simply come to a church to worship on this evening – We ARE the Church; we ARE the Christian ministry as it has been transitioned from that day of the Ascension.

Why do you stand looking up?  There is great joy in our worship and praise.  We move now into the sacred pause of the ten days between Jesus’ earthly departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  The mantle has been laid at our feet and we go forth to look out onto the ministry to which we are called

Drawing from the words of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians:  On this blessed feast of the Ascension, with the eyes of your heart enlightened (as you go forward into the reflective quiet of these next ten days), may you know what is the hope to which our Lord has called you, [Ephesians 1:18]

21
May

Advocate

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

Come Holy Spirit, Come.  Be with us in the speaking; be with us in the listening; be with us in the in between.  Help us always to remember that there is a Third present.

This is a prayer that I treasure.  My dear spiritual director and I begin our sessions together with this prayer.  Occasionally, I pray this prayer at other times of one-on-one conversations and times of counsel.  It is a prayer that is pertinent also at the beginning of a meeting – times when, as always, we seek God’s guidance in the words we speak – words that should be spoken with gentleness and reverence; we seek God’s help in reminding us to listen patiently and with open hearts to the words others will speak; we seek the constant awareness of God’s presence in our recognition of our reverence for one another – God’s presence that, as we pray, will lead us to the common ground we share.  Come Holy Spirit, Come; be our Advocate, as promised by our Lord.

During my clinical chaplaincy experience while in seminary, our group of “chaplains in training” would gather two to three times weekly to discuss our experiences as chaplains in a variety of health care facilities.  In my group was a young Jewish woman, “Ruth,” from whom I learned a great deal and came to admire.

Ruth shared her frustrations in one particularly difficult situation, providing pastoral care for a family in which a family member was at the level of maximum life support – unable to breathe on his own or to communicate in any way.  Yet, the family held out hope that their loved one would recover; they were paralyzed in their decision-making, unable to even discuss the removal of the artificial support.

Conversely, the medical staff felt very strongly that medical intervention was useless, in fact, intensifying suffering, and should be removed.  One particular medical provider was quite adamant about her feelings against prolonged support and even angry that the family was not willing to consider removal.  Advocating for the family as their chaplain, Ruth had become the target of her heated words; they had begun to see each other as enemies.

Ruth struggled with the existing tension of at least three complicated elements:  1) the tenets of her own faith and belief in the sanctity of life; 2) her sense that the medical professionals were correct in that the prolonged care was increasing the patient’s suffering; and 3) her position as chaplain, thus, advocate for this family – her calling to make known the presence of the God in this heart-breaking situation.

How should Ruth respond to this medical provider whose anger was spilling over into her own abilities to provide compassionate care, complicating an already highly challenging situation, and increasingly being directed at Ruth who stood in the middle ground as the advocate for the family?  Our group went round and round as we struggled with her, seeking guidance in finding the right approach to diffuse the anger that was inhibiting Ruth’s duty to be the source of calm amongst the anxiety.

What words would Ruth say in the next dreaded encounter?  We listened and pondered.  Finally, from the Holy Spirit, through the voice of a group member, came the words for her antagonist: “I agree with you.  I, too, am growing impatient and frustrated.  I believe we are needlessly prolonging the patient’s suffering.  BUT, I am, first and foremost, pastor and advocate for this family, and I will not abandon them at this time of such great need.  I will not argue with you; I am not your adversary; I am their advocate.”

Come Holy Spirit, Come.  Be with us in the speaking; be with us in the listening; be with us in the in between.  Help us always to remember that there is a Third present.

Our advocate leads us to the “third way” – common ground on which to begin building a right relationship with one another – relationship in gentleness and reverence about which Peter speaks in his Epistle that we read earlier.

Jesus assures us of his presence with us through the presence of the Spirit of Truth – the Holy Spirit.  In Jesus’ last words to his disciples in the last hours before his earthly death – the end of times together as they had known them – Jesus assured his disciples that he would ask the Father to send “another Advocate” to be with them forever.  The Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, as Jesus promised in the waning hours of his earthly life, is with us forever.

In two weeks, Pentecost, we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit as it was experienced for these early disciples 50 days after the Resurrection.  Today, we reflect on the blessing of our Advocate’s constant presence in our lives – this Spirit of truth about which Jesus speaks.  Jesus said, the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because the world doesn’t see or know the Spirit of truth – the world unwilling to speak with lowered voices, unwilling to listen, unwilling to acknowledge the presence of the Advocate.

In our lesson from Acts, we find the Apostle Paul, arriving in Athens, as he journeyed in the awareness of the presence of the Advocate.  Athens was known to be the seat of Greek culture steeped in pagan worship and known down through the centuries for worship of multiple gods rather than the one true God.

Paul’s approach in these introductory remarks to the people of Athens relates his insight through the guidance of the Holy Spirit to seek common ground at the very outset of his Christian mission in this pagan land.

Thus, rather than target the pagan altar of the Athenians as an object of disapproval and dismissal in a display of his contempt and ridicule, Paul introduces his speech by noting an inscription upon the Athenian altar that reads “To an unknown god.”  Rather than shunning the Athenians for their inappropriate pagan-based worship center, Paul begins, wisely, by complimenting the religiously inclined nature of the people of Athens.  He looks beyond their ignorance and misdirected faith and chooses instead to capitalize on their willingness to acknowledge the existence of an “unknown god.”  Finding common ground, establishing a trusted relationship with the people of Athens, trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit – the Advocate that our Lord promised to all believers – Paul sets the stage for evangelism as he begins acquainting the people of Athens with Jesus Christ, “the known God.”

Our present world, the present state of our country is quite resistant to the idea of seeking common ground.  We’re not willing to listen to others; our own words seem unheard, shouted down by the opposition.   We are unkind to one another.  We label each other with stereotypes and fear any compromise will lead to total loss of position.  Is there anyone willing to seek common ground?  Can we find a starting place that we all value and begin to rebuild reverence for one another?  Where is the gentleness and reverence in our relationships about which Peter writes?  It starts here, it goes with us in the presence of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of truth; from here we take it out into the world.

Come Holy Spirit, Come.  Be with us in the speaking; be with us in the listening; be with us in the in between.  Help us always to remember that there is a Third present.

14
May

Seeds

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

St. Augustine prayed, “Lord, my heart is restless until it finds rest in you.”

Happy Mother’s Day!  Thanks be to God for mothers!  Whether or not you are technically a “mother,” today is a day we celebrate the spirit of motherhood – the endless energy of the nurturing and nesting qualities of mother.  Today, we acknowledge our thanks for the quiet wisdom and guidance that we typically and positively associate with the maternal presence. 

We all carry these seeds of maternal wisdom in our lives – certainly, biologically, but also spiritually.  Wisdom, throughout the Bible, is addressed in the feminine.  Most of us by this time in our lives have learned the profound axiom: “If at first you do not succeed, do it like your mother told you.”  That is a seed of wisdom that sprouts and grows in our being more prolifically with each passing year.

I am sporting my Mother’s Day present – new earrings, a gift from my daughter; they are from Holly Lane Christian Jewelry.  The tiny ornament depicts a dandelion in its puffball stage.  The verse attached reads, “Remember lying in the yard blowing dandelions before you knew they were weeds?  May this piece [of jewelry] be a constant reminder that in the busyness of life, we can find true rest in Jesus.”

Steven, the apostle, knew of this true rest in Jesus Christ, even in the face of brutal death.  Our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the death of Steven who is known as the first Christian martyr whose death is described in scripture. 

In the days following the Resurrection and Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at the first Christian Pentecost, the Twelve Apostles chose seven new apostles to assist in the Christian mission and ministry.  These seven were officially appointed to assist in the spreading of the seeds of Christianity, which would begin in Jerusalem and spread to all the world as our attendance here confirms.  Steven was one of the seven chosen to assist in the spreading of these seeds.

Steven is described as being “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.”  [Acts 6:5]  As he gazed into heaven, embraced in the glory of God, and seeing the clear vision of Jesus Christ on his throne in heaven, Steven was dragged out of the city and stoned to death. 

We would not want to describe the seeds spread by Steven in his life and at the time of his death as weed seeds, but the seeds certainly were just as prolific as dandelion seeds.  The seeds carried in the breath of the Holy Spirit were spread in Steven’s life mission and, significantly, in his final prayerful requests.  As he died, Steven prayed calmly for the Lord Jesus to receive his spirit and to hold not the sin of his murderers against them.  The seeds were spread in the obvious presence of the true rest in Jesus Christ that Steven had found in life and that remained with him even in his violent torturous death.

Those in the murderous mob covered their ears; one amongst them, we are told, was a young man named Saul – specifically, Saul of Tarsus.  As the mob made efforts to stamp out the seeds of Christianity being spread by Steven, time would tell that the breath of the Holy Spirit blew those seeds upon Saul of Tarsus at whose feet the culprits tossed their coats. 

Saul, likely, had not covered his ears or diverted his eyes from the brutal scene of Steven’s death.  Saul had initiated and participated in many similar acts of violence – attempts to staunch the flow of the Christian message.  Saul, steeped in the Jewish faith from early childhood, had made it his mission to contain and destroy the followers of Jesus Christ such as Steven, whom he sincerely considered to be in opposition to God’s will for his people. 

With great earnestness and vigilance, Saul had pursued this mission, UNTIL these seeds of the Holy Spirit, which had lain dormant in him for a period of time, were brought to life on the road to Damascus.  Here, Saul, confronted face-to-face by the Risen Lord, found for himself these seeds of true rest that he had witnessed in Steven. 

Saul, who had spent his early life seeking that that he perceived to be the will of the Father, now recognized the Son, and understood that the true will of the Father is in knowing and following Jesus through whom God the Father is revealed.  At last, Saul acknowledged that God is revealed in the life and works of Jesus Christ – the mission whose seeds he had so ardently sought to destroy. 

Saul of Tarsus now understood the true rest in Jesus Christ that he witnessed at the stoning of Steven; Saul would receive the new name of Paul; his earnest and vigilant mission would be transformed to that of spreading the seeds of true rest in Jesus Christ.  Paul, in fact, would become, arguably, the most famous of all Christians.  He would give his life to and for the cause of spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus, in his final earthly hours with his disciples, had said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  The writer of John’s Gospel makes it clear to us that Jesus is not just the Son of God, as we like to say, but that Jesus and the Father are One in God.  In this lesson from John’s Gospel, the disciples are being asked by Jesus to believe that this inevitably doomed man is God or, at least, a portion of God, and that it will be through Jesus’ oneness in God that the promises of the Father had been and will be fulfilled.

In knowing Jesus Christ we have seen God the Father – our Father, our Creator, who wants only what is best for us.  In knowing Jesus Christ, the seeds of true rest are nurtured and guided to full growth; in life and earthly death we experience the fulfillment of the promise of the Father through the Son. 

On this day, we reflect on the seeds planted in us by our mothers and surrogate mothers; Some choose to conceptualize the Holy Spirit as the maternal mothering aspect of God – the Holy Spirit continuing to blow upon us the seeds of true rest and peace of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.  And so, with ever increasing understanding we acknowledge that if at first we don’t succeed, we should do it like our mother – the Holy Spirit told us.  So … we could say Happy Holy Spirit Day!  May the seeds of true rest in Jesus Christ blow upon you.

07
May

Knowing the Shepherd

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

“The sheep follow him because they know his voice.  They will not follow a stranger… [John 10:4b-5a]

This fourth Sunday of Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday.  Year after year on this day, we read scriptures depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  Jesus presents himself as the Good Shepherd on a number of occasions in the Gospel accounts.  Among the “I AM” statements of John’s Gospel, we read specifically in John 10:11, Jesus’ words, “I am the Good Shepherd.”

In this morning’s lesson, leading up to this pronouncement, Jesus indentifies himself as the gatekeeper of the sheep.  Only the true shepherd can enter the gate and call the sheep of his fold to follow his voice.  Jesus’ words are intended to chastise religious leaders who mislead the flocks entrusted to them.  Sadly, these commissioned to lead are strangers to those whose spiritual lives are their responsibility.  Jesus labels these deceptive leaders as thieves and bandits who enter the sheepfold for dishonorable reasons.  They are not true shepherds and they are not to be followed.

Shepherding is an humble profession.  We encounter imagery of the shepherd leading his sheep throughout the Bible – Old and New Testament.  Jesus frequently used analogies drawn from the imagery of sheep and shepherding, an aspect of life very familiar within the culture of the 1st century.  

Historically, shepherds have been lowly nomads, often smelly and travel-worn from endless days seeking greener pastures and safe territories for their flocks.  Shepherding was not an easy glamorous life, but Jesus used this profession as the very best illustration of the purpose of his life and mission.

Many of the key familiar figures of Hebrew history spent at least some time as shepherds – Father Abraham possessed a wealth of sheep; Jacob, who would become the father of Israel and his twelve sons had significant experiences with sheepherding; Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when God appeared to him in the burning bush; and David was shepherding the sheep when the prophet Samuel summoned him to be anointed King.

David was an accomplished shepherd.  David knew well the challenges of providing for the safety and nurturance of sheep over long hot thirsty days on dangerous terrain and cool nights fraught with the threat of predators lurking about the herd.  David understood the necessity of constant vigilance and good judgment required to lead the sheep.  He understood the importance of the relationship and the comforts of familiarity between shepherd and sheep. 

David knew this role well and he used this motif as he wrote what has become the most well known of all the Psalms – Psalm 23, our appointed Psalm for today.  From his position among the flock, David illustrates his understanding of God’s ever-present compassion, protection, and guidance.  Though written long before the earthly birth of Jesus Christ, still, we look to this psalm to illustrate our life within the sheepfold of Jesus Christ – lives lived in abundance of the overflowing cup of God’s grace through our faith in our Risen Lord.

 To complement Good Shepherd Sunday, our appointed Psalm each year on Fourth Easter is this Psalm – the 23rd Psalm.  Of all the scripture in the Bible, this is the one that almost all – churched or non-churched – can recite nearly by heart.  We know the words so well that we do not even reflect on the words, as we should, until a slice of life brings the words to mind in surreal moments.

On the English countryside, sheep dot the landscape.  As the sheep rest seemingly effortlessly on the hillside in the lush green grass, basking in the warm sun and cool breeze; there is the sense that God has placed them there; they are nourished and protected – all needs provided, they want for nothing.  Riding along the paths through the rolling English hillside, viewing this pastoral scene, the words of Psalm 23 bubble up.  We shall not want; God, as our shepherd, makes us to lie down in green pastures of solace and sustenance.  We rest alongside the still waters of provision and peace from which we drink our fill in the still waters of abundant safety – all because our shepherd is supplying our need.

Our souls are revived as we are led along the right pathways.  The Hebrew in which the Psalm is recorded is much more descriptive than is our English interpretation.  The intention of meaning is that God fully restores/repairs the totality of our being with his complete and perfect care.  And, as restored beings of God’s creation, we follow his lead, aware of our total dependence on his guidance along the right path of life.

Yet, Jesus himself confirms that evil will be forever present until the end of time.  Thus, it is reality that we walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” whether from external threats to our safety or times of deep personal despair and darkness.  This “valley of the shadow of death” always comes to mind for me when I view the photo of the people of New York City running panic-stricken through the street, the tall buildings creating a valley for the rushing firestorm of dust and debris that seeks to encompass them as the twin towers were exploding and collapsing behind them. 

Sheep remain always in danger; evil lurks and they are easy prey for predators.  Yet, even in the face of this constant threat, they are at peace – peace that comes solely from confidence in the vigilance of their shepherd – absolute trust in the shepherd’s protection – absolute trust in the gentle but firm discipline and guidance of the shepherd’s rod and staff. 

We, too, remain in constant danger, easy prey for our enemy the devil.  But, being disciplined and guided by our Lord’s rod and staff, we choose the right path with increasing appreciation and awareness of the Lord’s bountiful goodness and mercy, dwelling in the house of Lord now and forever. 

Jesus affirms, we do not go to dwell with a stranger.  Through prayer and scripture and worship, mission and ministry, we know our Good Shepherd’s voice and we follow.

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” – dwelling in the house of the Lord forever – dwelling in the sheepfold of our Lord whom we know as our friend and not a stranger.

 

02
May

Faithful through Uncertainties

Wisdom 3:1-5,9, Psalm 46, John 6:37-40 

Jesus said, “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

Eleanor Ward died with the faith that she would inherit eternal life as promised by our Lord.  Our Lord does not break his promises.  It is the will of the Father that all who accept and receive this gift of grace will not be turned away.  This reality is beyond our comprehension, but Eleanor now understands this great mystery as she resides now in eternal life.

Eleanor’s life was an ever-recurring series of uncertainties.  Even in death that came around midnight, we cannot be quite sure if she slipped into the embracing arms of Christ on Good Friday or Holy Saturday.  These are two days in particular that cause us Christians to pause.  Where was Jesus from Good Friday through Holy Saturday?

Our Gospel accounts assure us that Jesus died an earthly physical death on Good Friday and was buried, that he descended to Hell where he overcame death for all and for all eternity; AND He rose again on the third day.  In rising from the grave, Jesus vanquished death forever, meaning we are not to fear our earthly death.  Jesus has risen victorious over death.

And, we are redeemed  – justified by God’s grace alone through our faith in Jesus Christ.  We did not and cannot earn that grace; we cannot rid ourselves of that grace, even if we turn and walk away, the gift of God’s redeeming grace remains.

Eleanor understood this holy mystery through faith.  Faith is not based on certainty.  Eleanor’s life was a life of overcoming uncertainty through faith.  Orphaned at an early age by the tragic death of her parents, she was embraced by loving extended family who guided her through childhood into adulthood.  Encountering a young sailor at the US Navy submarine base in the Holy Loch near her home in Dunoon, Scotland, her life would take a vastly different direction than she might have expected.  Committing her life to that sailor led her to leave her family and home country and journey thousands of miles across a vast ocean into a quite uncertain future following the Navy wherever it led, embracing a new family, becoming a mother and teacher and best of all a grandmother, but never loosing that beautiful brogue of her Scottish upbringing, which was her anchor.

Day after day, for her life long Eleanor was faced with uncertainties – the greatest and most fearful being the diagnosis of cancer and the reality of quickly failing health.  But, Eleanor kept being faithful; she just kept being faithful – reaching into her faith for assurance that God was holding her and that, even in earthly death, all would be well. 

Our former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has been quoted as saying that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty.  The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is certainty. 

If I tell you you are seated in a wooden pew, you do not need to depend on your faith to believe that you are seated on a wooden pew; you are certain that you are seated on a pew made of wood.  Thus, it is not required that you have faith that the pew is wooden.  You don’t need to take out your saw and cut into it to investigate.

On the other hand, our faith in everlasting life is fraught with uncertainties beyond our human limitations of spiritual understanding.  Our human doubtfulness leads us to continue searching for truth.  We are faithful, as Eleanor was faithful, that our Lord has kept his promise – the promise that none whom the father had given him would be lost.  The Lord asks only that we continue being faithful – just keep being faithful – just keep walking toward the light of truth.

In the book from the Apocrypha known as the Wisdom of Solomon we read that we are foolish to believe that death brings disaster and destruction; in death we are at peace, “Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love.

Eleanor was bound in love by family and friends.  She accepted and received and embraced the love of Jesus Christ that was evermore present with her in her last days – present in the healing grace of the loving embrace of all who cared for her.

Eleanor abides with our Lord in that everlasting love; and he will raise her up on the last day as our Lord promises the Father.  None is lost.  Through faith, we can be certain.

30
Apr

At Table

Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

“So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

Yesterday, your vestry met for retreat.  I’ll admit that when my alarm went off at 5:00 a.m. yesterday morning, I was not feeling enthused, but when it crawled into bed last night, I was still feeling the euphoria. 

The Rev. Canon Charles Robinson was our facilitator for a session on vestry leadership and responsibilities; he presented questions that helped us explore our mutual ministry as delegated leaders of the Church of the Advent.  We worked hard through the morning; then we celebrated the Holy Eucharist together; and then we shared a meal; and then we worked so more. 

I think we would all agree that sharing Eucharist and sharing the noonday meal was just as important to our sense of community and call and commitment to the mission and ministry of the Church of the Advent as was our discussion and decision making.

Perhaps you can remember a time that a meal was profoundly important in recognizing the presence of Christ – equally physical as spiritual – a warm loaf of bread for a grieving neighbor, a meaty sandwich for the homeless, comfort food for a child home from college – food, not just for the body, but even more so for the soul – food that articulates the presence of Christ.

 I will never forget the left over cashew chicken from a nearby Chinese restaurant that Roland brought me in the hospital on my first day of being allowed solid food following an emergency Caesarian.  The dish was so cold that the oil had coagulated; but to the amazement of my visitors, I ate it with great abandon, and have never forgotten its depth of nourishment.  I was physically starved and emotionally spent, and this cold cashew chicken fed my soul. 

Jesus talked a lot about food and shared important soul time at table; mealtime was clearly a holy time.  The hospitality associated with sharing a meal has been significant for the people of God since the beginning of humanity.  The feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle that all four Gospel writers include in their Gospel accounts.  Jesus was eating at the home of one of the Pharisees when the unnamed woman bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 

Jesus was accused of sharing meals with sinners.  This violation is far more complex than local clergy being seen sharing a draft and a sandwich at the local beer hall.  Food for the faithful Jew is governed by all sorts of regulations – what foods can be eaten, how they are to be prepared, when they can be eaten, and with whom.  For Jesus to eat with someone outside his faith tradition would be a violation of a myriad of dietary decrees.  But, it was obvious that Jesus was eager to share a meal with anyone willing to join him for that experience.  Sharing a meal was and is about so much more than physical need.

Even after the Resurrection, we read of Jesus eating fish on the beach with his disciples.  Jesus highlights the importance of being physically fed; in so doing he emphasizes the intermeshing of physical and spiritual food.

Time and again this message is reinforced in the Gospel accounts.  We know, in fact, that in Jesus’ last evening with his disciples, the main focus was their meal together.  This is the meal in which we re-participate each time we share the Holy Eucharist– the meal we share in remembrance of Jesus Christ our Lord, and not simply as a memorial, but as true participants – true members of that group of burdened and confused disciples on that night before the crucifixion.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we read again of Jesus sharing a meal – but not just an ordinary meal; this meal has the clearest of connections with the Holy Eucharist – the meal that we are instructed to continue in the memory of our Lord each time we come together for worship.

As we read from Luke’s Gospel account, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.” 

In the same way, as specifically instructed and demonstrated by Jesus Christ our Lord, we take the bread; we bless the bread; we break the bread; and, most importantly, we share the bread.  And, as we share this holy meal in communion with one another, our eyes are opened and we recognize the very real presence of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Our receiving of the Holy Communion is not intended to be an individual experience; it is a sharing in communion as one Body of Christ.

When I am asked the meaning of the Holy Communion, I refer to our prayer of thanksgiving that sums up the need, the blessing, and the purpose of the Holy Communion.  Let’s look together at that prayer. 

As our Vestry gathered in communion to share this holy food we received [Rite I: God’s grace to continue in holy fellowship, to do good works that our Lord has prepared us to do through the Church of the Advent.] Rite II: the strength and courage to continue to love and serve through the Church of the Advent as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord – as members incorporate/living members of the Body of Christ.

“At the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.  Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.”

23
Apr

Inner Attunement

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’”  [John 20:21]

What is this peace that Jesus declares to “be” with his disciples?

Cynthia Burgeault is a writer and teacher of contemplative living.  In her definition of peacemakers she asserts, “the inner being comes to rest, and that inner peaceableness flows into the outer world as harmony and compassion.”  The right actions of one who is at peace stem from “inner attunement.”  This inner attunement, she goes on to say, allows us to “discern what action is required of us to lovingly and effectively serve our hurting planet.”[1]  Peace -> Inner Attunement -> Right Action.

Jesus does not speak of peace as something we keep to ourselves.  This peace of inner attunement that only Jesus Christ can bring culminates in loving, effective serving of the world through the flow of harmony and compassion.  Jesus’ words are words of commissioning: “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

From the beginning, peaceableness of Christians in the face of crisis has been most instrumental in conversions of non-believers.   This phenomenon was most present during the various plagues over the centuries, and specifically the 14th century rampage of the Black Death/Bubonic Plague in Europe.  Throngs of frightened villagers fled more populated areas out of fear of contracting the disease.  Thus, the plague was spread across the continent of Europe, resulting in the deaths of one quarter of the population of Europe.  Over the next four hundred years as this pandemic reemerged in Asia and the Middle East, it is estimated that 140 million people died from the Bubonic Plague.

But, in contrast to the fleeing frightened villagers, Christians stayed in their hometowns, remaining calm and active in efforts to aid their gruesomely ill neighbors.  Moving about with non-anxious presence, Christians with certainty of mission fearlessly bathed and cared for the sick, and consoled the dying.  They joined with other Christians throughout Europe in providing nourishing meals for the stricken, giving them physical and spiritual strength in hopes of overcoming their horrible life-threatening condition.  Christians, who themselves had survived the plague, were now immune to the disease and most ardent in their efforts to serve their stricken brothers and sisters lovingly and effectively, whether religious or pagan wealthy or poverty-stricken, young or old.

The compassionate actions illuminating the peaceableness of the Christian faith impressed even the most skeptical rulers who had been effectively paralyzed by fear and hopelessness of The Plague.  Rulers and peasants witnessed the Christian faith expressed not just in ritualistic worship, but also in active earthly deeds of compassion – fearless, selfless actions in the face of the grave threat of death.

The clearsightedness of these Christians demonstrated in these fearless acts of compassion fueled the desires of non-believers to seek the Good News of the peace of Jesus Christ.  Non-believers wanted this peaceableness and certainty of mission for themselves; they desired this same sense of peace in the face of crisis.  Thus, the Bubonic Plague became the catalyst for the prolific spread of Christianity throughout Medieval Europe.  Those who survived found their lives drastically changed by the peace of Christ; those who died died in the peace of Christ.

As we read in our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus called his disciples to peaceableness as he breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.  Jesus returned to these closest followers periodically over the 40 days between the Resurrection and Ascension.  Penetrating their locked doors of fear and confusion and doubt, Jesus prepared them for their mission in the world by calling them into peaceableness.

Jesus calls us to be at peace – to present our fears and doubts to him openly where he can breathe on us His peace.  Jesus BREATHES peace into us – just as he did Thomas and the other disciples – just as God breathed the world into creation and breathed life into Adam and Eve.

The word for peace in Hebrew is shalom – we have no accurate translation of the word.  Shalom is peace that is an inter-meshing of inner peace of the heart with outward peace in our relationships with others.  Shalom produces a rich and fruitful quality of life that can bring peace to the entire world if only we do our part in spreading that peace.  This peace of Christ is not something we can keep for ourselves; it’s not about us; shalom is expressed in our non-anxious approach to the little incidents and great crises of our everyday lives.

I don’t have any formula for finding peace in your life; I know that that peace comes through our faith in Jesus Christ, that being at peace requires daily discernment and prayer.  It requires keeping our voices low and our hearts open.

I know that the absence of peace is a signal of unaddressed anger; anger, like acid, eats its container from the inside out.  Anger causes us to lash out irrationally, heaping unjust criticism on those who innocently land in our crossfire.  Anger can destroy our world.  The world is looking to Christians for peace.

Jesus breathed peace into the hearts of the disciples in response to their expressions of fear and Thomas’ expressions of doubts.  The disciples were now prepared to pursue their missions without doubtfulness; they would take the peace of Christ to the world.

Perhaps, Cynthia Burgeault expresses it best in her phrase “inner attunement” – being attuned with God, attuned with the world, and attuned with ourselves.  For the peacemaker, “the inner being comes to rest, and that inner peaceableness flows into the outer world as harmony and compassion.”

It is our tradition always to exchange the peace of Christ with one another in preparation for the Holy Eucharist.  We, then, come together in peace to receive the holy food and renew our certainty of mission.  In a few moments, as you offer that peace of Christ, let your inner peacebleness flow toward your fellow worshiper in harmony and compassion.  Then, come in peace, to share the victory of our Resurrected Lord.


 

[1] Adapted from Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—A New Perspective on Christ and His Message (Shambhala: 2008), 46-47.

16
Apr

Do not be afraid

Jeremiah 31:1-6, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Easter Day A

For our Prayers of the People this morning, our friend Eleanor Ward comes off the list of concerns and goes onto the list of those who have died.  Eleanor died Friday about midnight.  We’ve been praying for her for these many months since her diagnosis of lung cancer.  Eleanor was not a member of our parish; she had visited only a few times and was known to only a few of us. 

But, when Eleanor was stricken with severe breathing problems a few weeks ago, she reached out to her friends here – friends who faithfully gathered around her.  She knew she was very ill, and she was terribly afraid.  She needed to be assured of God’s presence with her; she needed to be assured that even though she had not had a close association with the Church, she was still loved by God.  She spoke of her love for God and her desire to follow his will.

Eleanor reached out in need of the Risen Christ who has fulfilled his promise of everlasting life.  As I read our Gospel lesson for this morning determining a direction for the sermon, I reflected on our discussion on my first visit to Eleanor in the ICU at Leigh.  We spoke of God’s most frequent command – a command we read hundreds of times throughout the Old and New Testament – “Do not be afraid.”  I believe, for most of us, this is the most difficult command to follow – trusting that God is truly the breath we breathe; Eleanor’s breaths came with great difficulty; perhaps she felt she was suffocating physically and spiritually.  The assurance of angels – friends and family gathered around her, surrounding her in prayer, was of great comfort.  God was present in these healing graces at this time of great fear and uncertainty.

Hundreds of times throughout the Bible, we hear, “Do not be afraid.”  These are the words of the angel to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as we have just read in our Gospel account from Matthew of Resurrection morning.  In the words of the angel whom these two women encounter, we hear echoes of other familiar joyous scripture.  We remember the angel Gabriel’s words to another Mary, the newly expectant mother of Jesus, when she was told she would bear a son – the Messiah – “Do not be afraid; you have found favor with God”; and, we remember the words to the shepherds as the angels appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus.  “Do not be afraid; you will find the babe wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 

To Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, the angel said, “Do not be afraid.  He has been raised.  He is not here.  Come, see the place where he lay.”

And, to their great amazement, as the women turned to run to share these glad tidings with the other disciples, Jesus, himself, appeared, and again we hear the words, this time from Jesus’ lips, “Do not be afraid.”  Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were beginning to understand.  It was important that they go and gather the other followers – carry Jesus’ message that they were to gather in Galilee.  Jesus, their teacher and leader, had kept his promise.  He had overcome death and risen again.  All who believe would be gathered to him as one Body.

You have come this morning to gather with others to find and to share the assurance of this message of great joy – that Jesus Christ lies no longer in the grave.  Jesus Christ has risen to overcome death and evil and he gathers us to him, sustaining us with his ever-abiding presence, so that we are not to be afraid.

We arrive for worship as individuals or perhaps two by two as the women came; we come shouldering our earthly cares and fears.  As we gather with one another – friend or stranger, and as we worship and pray, we come to believe and understand bit by bit that we are one in the Body of Christ.  Living into our worship together, gathered as one, our fears are assuaged; in the place of our fear we find greater faith.

We gather in communion with one another to receive the Body and Blood of Christ; we become one in the mission of Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ mission on earth was completed and perfected by his death and Resurrection.  The mission is ours to carry on.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Do not be afraid.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Come and gather with him at His Table

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Go and tell the others.