For weeks, the words "to Listen!" have grown louder and more persistent! But listen to what? Listen to what's going on in the world around me? It seems that there is either a storm which has caused such havoc, or wild fires in California, or a group that has kidnapped young girls, or another mining tragedy, this time in Turkey, or one nation once again forcing their hegemony on another such as the situation in Ukaraine, ………….Then there's the momentary crisis with someone in my own family,or in my family here at church…….LISTEN?… HEAR?….Feel COMPASSION? Jesus says to us: Do not let your hearts be troubled?
On the other hand, maybe I could just put my hands over my ears so I don't have to listen.
That's what Stephen's crowd did when he spoke to them and delivered the news that they didn't want to hear. Stephen is recorded as the first martyr of the new Christian faith and by the way the patron saint of DEACONS. Not sure just what the implication is here……. but then.
Stephen was called before the Sanhedrin. He infuriated them and the crowd. They covered their ears, and with a loud shout all had rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; In the face of an angry mob, Stephen delivered a message that accused the people "of being stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears ---of rejecting the prophets, and of opposing the Holy Spirit…."
AHHHH! Perhaps that's the key …. We are able to listen, to hear, to have compassion, because we are unwilling to oppose the Holy Spirit. So now how do we align ourselves, as individuals and as a congregation IN TRANSITION so that we are indeed working in alignment with the HOLY SPIRIT? Perhaps because we are all concerned about our transition time and the importance of hearing one another, we can hear what Jesus was saying to the disciples in our gospel reading this morning. It opens with these words…"DO NOT LET YOUR HEARTS BE TROUBLED……..IN MY FATHER'S HOUSE THERE ARE MANY DWELLING PLACES……..
Many rooms…JOHN'S JESUS ATTEMPTS TO ASSURE DISCIPLES THAT THERE WILL BE PLENTY OF ROOM for all. The relationship is going to continue, even as it changes. Let me say that again. The relationship is going to continue, even as it changes! Jesus is reassuring the disciples that his death is not the end, but "THE BEGINNING!"
Robert Jensen writes about God's 'roominess' in relation, not to space, but to time. God is willing to take all the time it takes, but are we, much of the time willing to set aside some of our TIME --TO LISTEN! God's promise to love us, to make room for all of us, to know and to be known by us, NEVER ENDS! THEREFORE OUR HEARTS NEED NEVER BE TROUBLED. That is if we don't put our hands over our ears…..WE HAVE TO LISTEN……Really listen to one another!
I like what Bill Plotkin says : "The first half of life" is doing our survival dance" That would be in my opinion the time when we create the many costumes we try on to fit the images we want to create. "The second half of life," Plotkin continues," can then become our "sacred dance." " That is when I believe that we SHOULD see ourselves dressed In the garments of the Spirit.
When we are too busy saving our souls, we never get beyond our survival dance; and so we neglect to ask the deep concerns of the soul --the necessary questions that lead us into the sacred dance! That place where we are found "not opposing the Holy Spirit" but partnering with the Holy Spirit! And to do that we have to listen!
Now, St. Michael's must be ready to move forward. Let's not allow the survival mode attached to our former group identity to be a distraction as we embrace the wonder of a new journey together. Let's catch the vision of what can be --and with joy prepare to dance the sacred dance. It's not that we forget or neglect to see and to even give thanks for all those early stages, but our energy moves with us as we go forward. THE RELATIONSHIP CONTINUES EVEN AS IT CHANGES!
Dragged by an angry mob, and stoned -- two kinds of actions are witnessed in our story recorded in Acts. The members of the Council cover their ears -- so they won't hear…..because they have already determined what they are going to do …..because they don't want to change their way of thinking. And then there is the action of Stephen….he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, (while they were stoning him)…."Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Stephen had emphasized how God had been with Israel throughout the wilderness period. He had tried to convince them that often their times of greatest growth had occurred during their greatest struggles.
Even our Psalmist says this morning in Psalm 31: "MY TIMES ARE IN YOUR HANDS;………….
Are we willing to not be anxious or troubled to the degree that it interferes in the sacred dance with the Holy Spirit in this transition time? Opening our hearts with compassion, and listening -- truly listening?
Wednesday night, I had one of those nights-- you know when you go to bed and several hours later you're still wide awake…. Well, I really wasn't worrying about anything in particular, but nevertheless, sleep just wouldn't come…. Eventually I just got up. I had read earlier in the evening and wasn't in the mood to read more now, so I switched on the TV. SIGH! Well, at that time of night there was nothing I wanted to see or hear….so I watched the a rerun of the GOLDEN GIRLS! You laugh…but believe me, those comedy sitcoms often times deliver a powerful message….AS IT DID IN THIS ONE.
Blanche has announced that her brother Clayton is arriving with a big surprise. "Maybe he's bringing home his girl," she says hopefully, where upon Dorothy reminds her that Clayton in gay. "Oh", says Blanche, "I think that was just a phase he was going through"! Well, as you may have guessed, Clayton does arrive with the big surprise that he and his partner Doug are going to get married! The other roommates accept Doug and welcome him, but Blanche refuses to be a part of anything that is going to be made public.
BLANCHE CLOSES HER EARS (in a sense she holds her hands over her ears as well as her heart)…..SHE DOESN'T HEAR WHAT DOUG AND CLAYTON OR HER ROOMMATES TRY TO TELL HER.
Well, eventually using comedy and many clever comments and situations -- at the end…..Sophia the elderly member of the household and the mother of Dorothy, speaks the words that Blanche finally hears. I guess Sophia might be said to symbolically play the part of the Holy Spirit.
Here's what Blanche says to Sophia as they sit across the table from one another…"Well it's easier for you, Sophia, to accept the situation- He's not your brother. I can accept the fact that he is gay but why does he have to slip a ring on the finger of this man so the whole world will know?" This is Sophia's answer, first in the form of a question! "Why did you marry George?
Blanche answers without a moment's hesitation. "We loved each other…We wanted to make a life-time commitment… We wanted everyone to know that!
BIG SILENCE--- then:
Sophia's quiet reply: "That's what Doug and Clayton want.. Everyone wants --someone-- to grow old with. Shouldn't everyone have that opportunity?" You can surmise how the situation ended…….. With joy of course and celebration, of course!
We too have to listen to one another: to hear God's promise to love us and to make room for all of us: to know that even in our wilderness times, the time of our transition, God is calling us to DANCE THE SACRED DANCE WITH THE HOLY SPIRIT!
AND THEREFORE, To never allow our hearts to be so troubled, NEVER TO PUT OUR HANDS OVER OUR EARS AND REFUSE TO HEAR WITH BOTH HEARTS AND EARS!
Our relationship is going to continue -- even as it changes!
Cleopas and his friend are on a journey.
They are walking through the afternoon, to a place called Emmaus.
They trudge along, heads down, dejected and lost.
A stranger joins them on the road.
“What are you talking about?” he asks.
They are amazed, and they tell him a story
- a story of a man named Jesus, who spoke of God in a new way.
- Who worked wonders among the people.
- Who they had hoped would save them from Roman occupation. Until he was killed. Some women told a story that he was raised from the dead –
- but really, how could that be?
Each of us is on a journey.
Maybe it is a journey heading straight toward a goal –
or maybe it is a wandering journey, with an unclear destination.
Our journey may be leading through green meadows beside still waters –
or we may feel we are on a steep and rocky climb, ever upward
Sometimes in our journeys we lose all our footing and feel like we are in free fall.
And sometimes we get stuck.
Whether in comfort and complacency, or in doubt and despair,
sometimes we seem to come to a stop in the road.
During my study this week, I came across this story, told by Alyce McKenzie, a professor at Perkins School of Theology:
I was at the Philadelphia zoo some years ago. My older brother Wade and his family had joined my family for a zoo day. The kids were watching the seals, but Wade and I were standing in front of the bear exhibit before we went to join them. The Philadelphia zoo had recently gotten rid of the cages and built a new, more open habitat for the bears with beautiful foliage, a bubbling creek, and room to roam. The younger bears were strutting their stuff, enjoying being bears in the open space.
But back in the corner there was an old bear. He was a shaggy, mangy old bear and he was putting himself through his paces. On all fours, his eyes on the ground, he would walk ten steps to the right, then do a strange shuddery shake that involved his whole bear body. Then he would turn and pace ten steps to the left, stop for the shake, then turn to do his ten paces to the right. The same journey over and over again.
I stood for I don't know how long, watching his back and forth. "Look at him," I said, elbowing my brother standing next to me. "He kind of reminds me of me."
"Yeah," said the man, a complete stranger to me, who was now standing where Wade had stood. "I know what you mean."
Cleopas and his friend are in such a place.
They cannot see the whole picture,
because they are stuck in a place of “we had hoped.”
So the story they tell the stranger misses the point.
The irony is, as we know, the stranger is Jesus himself.
They tell Jesus his own story.
At this point, perhaps we’d like to see Jesus come back with a gentle, compassionate response.
We’d like some comfortable pastoral care from Jesus.
Instead, Jesus sounds impatient.
“Have you even been paying attention?
“You seem to have missed part of the story.”
Instead of telling them what they want to hear,
he tells them what they need to hear.
As I’ve shared with some friends this winter and spring the challenges facing St Michael’s and my own struggles, a few of them have responded,
“What is all this teaching you? What gifts does this hold?”
Not always the gentle commiseration I was looking for.
But in the end, more helpful.
And I’ve realized something.
I have seen a number of counselors and spiritual directors who are supportive and kind.
Who hold my hand and encourage me when I am hard on myself (which is always.)
But sometimes what I need is someone who will kick me in the pants.
Someone who will hold my feet to the fire and help me out of the stuck places.
Cleopas and his friend tell their story,
and they are stuck on the haunting phrase, “We had hoped . . . “
Amy Hunter, poet and episcopal lay leader, writes,
For them the story is over. Their hopes have proven empty, and they are defeated. But then Jesus tells the story back to them, this time through the lens of their own faith tradition and scriptures. "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe. . ." The story is not about them and their disappointment, he says. It is about life, the universe and everything in it.
Jesus reconnects Cleopas and his friend with their religious tradition.
He reminds them what they know about God and God’s faithfulness to God’s people,
throughout centuries of history and prayer.
He reminds them of the prophets and the long years of waiting for the messiah.
He reminds them of a God who has always been in the business of redemption.
Jesus joins Cleopas and his friend on the road, and tells them what they need to hear.
Then he joins them for supper,
where he somehow becomes the host.
He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.
And suddenly they know him.
They know who it is that has walked with them, listened to them, and taught them.
They know who it is who has brought them to this moment,
even though they thought they were the ones inviting him in.
Alyce McKenzie writes about this story:
The plot of the walk to Emmaus scene epitomizes the plot of the whole Gospel of Luke (and, for that matter, of John). Jesus is our companion on the way, but we do not recognize him.
That is what this story is about.
Whatever journey we are on – Jesus comes alongside us and walks it with us.
The road to Emmaus is an ordinary road –
the road each one of us is on every day.
Cleopas and his friend could be any of us.
Again, Amy Hunter:
This story shows us a God who walks alongside human confusion, human pain and human loss of faith and hope. Emmaus invites us to expect God to find us. Emmaus challenges us to see that it isn’t our unshakable faith and deep spirituality that connect us with the risen Christ, but our smallest gestures of hospitality and friendship.
The story ends with Cleopas and his friend returning to the other disciples.
From trudging away in despair,
they now rush to share their joy.
Their road forward is with the community of followers,
to study the Word
and break bread together,
and invite others to journey with them in new life and new hope.
Jesus has led them out of their own box of expectations and assumptions,
into nothing less than God’s own mission of love in the world.
Their journey ahead may take them, with the other apostles, to unknown places and new understandings –
but now they know that Jesus will go with them all the way.
It is always an honor and a privilege for me to talk about the word of God, the love of Jesus, our faith…and my doubts. Today, I am truly grateful to have the opportunity to do so here at St. Michael and All Angels. This is the parish which warmly welcomed my husband and me in 2008. This is the place I was finally able to settle down and listen to the Spirit’s call for me to ordination. This is the place where I was able to discern this call and you as a congregation lifted me up to that calling. This is the incredible spiritual community that supported us with love and prayer while I was very sick with cancer two summers ago. And this is the place where – exactly one year ago tomorrow – you all celebrated with us at the Blessing of our Lifelong Covenant. Today I stand before you as a postulant on my path to becoming a deacon. I am so grateful to be here.
Now, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!
Doubting Thomas! Do the kids these days use the phrase “doubting Thomas”? I’ll have to check my non-existent Twitter account for #doubtingthomas. Many of us have probably encountered the story of Doubting Thomas before. I know I’ve heard many sermons on the poor guy. I wondered what more I could add to the mix.
In the interest of full disclosure, Thomas isn’t the only person in the Bible who doubted Jesus had risen from the dead upon hearing the news.
Matthew, Chapter 28: Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and tells her to instruct the disciples to meet him in Galilee. They go. But verse 17 says: “When they saw him, they worshipped him but some doubted.”
Mark Chapter 16: Jesus again appears to Mary Magdalene. She tells the disciples what she saw. Verse 11 says: “But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.”
Luke, Chapter 24: Mary Magdalene and the other women return from the empty tomb and tell the disciples what they have learned. Verse 11 says: “But these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.”
So why is all the DOUBT dumped on poor Thomas? Each of the four Gospels tell us that many, if not all the disciples, could not believe their Lord had risen until they encountered him face to face….and in the story from Matthew, even THEN some of them were doubtful.
My best guess is that Thomas is singled out because he can represent each of us. Instead of a group being doubtful, this is one person standing against a group of believers. He doesn’t succumb to peer pressure. Like many of us (all of us?) he wants to investigate for himself. And when Thomas’ doubt is turned to belief, Jesus has something to say to him. We’ll get to that later.
There is a fantastic stage play called Doubt. It was written by John Patrick Shanley and premiered on Broadway in 2004. In 2005 it won the Tony Award for Best Play of the year and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I did not see the original production in New York City, but I saw an amazing production of Doubt right here in Albuquerque in 2006.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to tell you all about the play and how it ends. If that concerns you, please feel free to tune me out now….if you haven’t done so already.
Doubt is a four-person play set in 1964 in a Roman Catholic Church and School in the Bronx. Father Flynn is the progressive, popular, charismatic, attractive priest in charge. Sister Aloysius is the mature, stern, stereotypical nun who rules the school as principal with an iron fist and steadfast convictions.
Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius are like oil and water. She distrusts his ideas to try and make the church more accessible to the people. She likes the old way of doing things. She has her rules. She follows them exactly.
The conflict of the play arises when Sister Aloysius learns from a novice nun and teacher, Sister James, that Father Flynn had a private meeting with one of the young male students of the school. Mysterious circumstances around that meeting lead Sister Aloysius to accuse Father Flynn of sexual misconduct with the boy. Father Flynn explains he was cousneling…helping the child, not hurting him. Sister James is relieved and believes the priest’s story. Sister Aloysius is not swayed and makes it her mission to have Father Flynn removed from the parish. She is like a dog with a bone. She will not let the matter go. She hounds the priest about his actions and even asks the boy’s mother to join her crusade.
In the climactic scene, Father Flynn threatens to have Sister Aloysius removed from her position if she doesn’t back down. The nun counters by saying she had spoken with the nuns at Father Flynn’s previous parish and learned of other improprieties in his past. If he doesn’t resign, she will share this information with the bishop. Father Flynn immediately applies for a transfer and is reassigned – actually he receives a promotion.
Later, alone with Sister James, Sister Aloysius admits she had not contacted the priest’s pervious parish. She didn’t have one shred of proof that he was guilty of anything. Alone with the novice, Sister Aloysius cries the final line of the play:
“I have doubt. I have such doubt.”
Doubt? Doubt? How could a woman…A NUN…with such strong convictions and determination have any doubt? During the play, she showed not one ounce of doubt. But once she achieved her goal – the thing she had been fighting for all along – the thing she believed to be right….she had doubt!
And Thomas traveled with Jesus for three years. Thomas saw the miracles he had performed. He had listened to Jesus preach and knew what the future held. And still Thomas didn’t believe the news of the resurrection without some proof. He had doubt!
So where the heck does that leave us? Here you are sitting in church with our smart phones, a bible full of encouraging words and a guy up here talking to you who sometimes has enough doubts of his own to fill a U-Haul trailer. What are we supposed to think?
Let’s look at Sister Aloysius. I think once her mission was accomplished, her conviction to the problem was removed – she had nothing left. Father Flynn – the real or imagined problem - was gone. The thing Sister Aloysius had clung to most fervently was no longer pertinent. Now there was a big, gaping void….filled with doubt.
Perhaps I could liken it to some Christian churches that spend so much time and energy on social issues – telling people what is right and what is wrong. What to do and what not to do. If you can concentrate on simple do’s and don’t’s – sexual morals, homosexuality, marriage equality, abortion, wholesome entertainment – then you don’t have time to dig into the deep mysteries of our faith. Take away those banner issues and then you have to start thinking. And once you start thinking…..well, look out. Doubt arrives.
And at the end of Thomas’ story today, Jesus doesn’t rebuke the doubting disciple. Instead, he encouraged Thomas to touch him, to place his hand in his wounds so that he might be able to believe. Then Jesus says these amazing words:
“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
He doesn’t condemn those who have doubts. He doesn’t discourage the non-believers. Jesus knows it’s a big leap of faith and listen to what he said “Blessed are those who have not seen and YET HAVE COME to believe.” Jesus knows it going to be instantaneous. He knows we have to come to believe. We are human. We have minds. We need to see things. I am from Missouri….the Show-Me State! Seeing is believing as they say.
Back in the early 80’s there was a series of black and white posters aimed to attract young adults to the Episcopal Church. Two in particular I remember were these:
“He died to take away your sins. Not your mind.”
“There’s only one problem with churches that have all the answers. They don’t allow questions.”
In fact, think about faith. Without doubt, there would be no need for faith. If we didn’t have questions or doubts then faith would be called….um, fact.
And listen to these words from the first letter of Peter from today’s epistle. “The genuineness of your faith – being more precious than gold, though perishable, is tested by fire.” Peter didn’t say the strength of your faith is more precious than gold. He didn’t talk about the having not one single doubt is more precious than gold. No! He compliments the genuineness of your faith – the honesty with which you want to believe. That’s all anyone can ask of us.
So how do we wrap all this up? How about exactly where we started – with what a wonderful, loving, nurturing, faith community we have here. That’s the very reason we come here - however often it is you might come here. Together we can share our doubts and our problems and our sometimes wavering faith. Together we can work on coming to believe.
Own your doubt.
It’s a process. And that’s OK. God is patient. Jesus is patient. The Holy Spirit is patient. Let’s be patient with ourselves as well.
Will it happen overnight?
I doubt it.
But can we work together and help each other come to believe?
Certainly. Without a shadow of a doubt!
Audio: "Now the Green Blade Riseth," 1982 Hymnal #204, followed by Easter Sermon by the Rev. Kristin Schultz.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen indeed! Alleluia!
How many of you are back to eating chocolate today –
did anyone get into the kids’ Easter baskets already this morning
for that first taste of chocolate in forty days?
Or back to drinking coffee?
What else are you going back to this morning?
It is easy for us to think of Easter as getting something back.
In celebration of Jesus coming back from the dead
we go back to the little luxuries we gave up for Lent –
we go back to singing “Alleluia” –
In some ways, it feels like going back to “business as usual,”
after the various ways we’ve observed Lent.
But Easter is not about going back.
When Jesus died,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary
saw the life they’d known in the years they followed Jesus disappear.
So what did they think,
when they came to the tomb that first Easter morning and found,
not a quiet burial place,
but an angel with amazing news?
And what about the rest of the disciples?
What did they think when Mary and Mary came to tell them the news:
Jesus is alive! He will meet us in Galilee!
Did they believe that Jesus would be there to meet them?
Or did they just go on to Galilee with some slight hope –
because they didn’t know what else to do next?
Once they understood that Jesus was alive,
I imagine they looked forward to resuming the life they’d known
as disciples of Jesus.
But that life was no longer an option.
What Jesus has in store for the disciples
-- the gift of the Holy Spirit,
living, and for some, dying as apostles telling the story of Jesus –
is nothing they’d ever imagined.
Easter isn’t about going back.
Jesus doesn’t come back to take up where he left off,
returning to his life as a traveling preacher and healer.
With Jesus’ death and resurrection,
God has done something completely new.
Jesus died as a sign of God’s love.
Jesus was raised from the dead as a sign of God’s power
to grant new life in the face of evil and of death itself.
Jesus’ resurrection is not a return to the good old days,
to the way things used to be.
The resurrection we celebrate at Easter is a promise of new life,
beyond our expectations –
but it is not a chance to go back.
Easter is a day of joy and celebration.
But we did not come easily to this day.
This week we heard the story of the Passion of Jesus –
his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
It is not an easy or comfortable story –
but it is a part of the story we need to hear.
New life follows loss and grief.
There is no Resurrection without a death.
These past years have been difficult ones at St Michael’s.
We grieve for beloved leaders who have moved on –
Fr. Christopher, Fr. Brian, and Rev Sue
We wonder what will happen next.
We wonder who we will be without Fr Brian,
who shaped this congregation with his ministry for 30 years.
Some of us struggle with what it means to be the Church in
a time of change and turmoil.
Many of us here also struggle with personal loss and change.
I know of grief that has left some of you reeling these past weeks and months,
and there is so much more pain and heartache carried here today
than I could possibly know.
Perhaps the celebration of Easter is hard for you today,
and the cries of Alleluia ring hollow in your ears.
Perhaps you wonder what will be next,
how you will pick up the pieces and go on.
Some years ago I was at a churchwide gathering,
and each of us in attendance received one of these lovely glass angels.
The Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land was our speaker that day, and he shared the story of the angels.
During an Israeli military strike in April of 2002,
tank shelling and air strikes on Bethlehem broke hundreds of windows.
Broken glass became a symbol of the town’s destruction.
More importantly, the broken glass symbolized
the broken hopes and dreams of so many people.
A group of artisans began to gather the glass shards
and transform them into these glass angels.
The artisans worked with the International Center of Bethlehem –
a group that provides vocational training for unemployed Palestinians.
In their arts program, they encourage human productivity and creative skills
to enable people, through their own work,
to participate in shaping their future.
They could not change the horror of war and violence.
But they could move through that horror,
and transform symbols of destruction and war into symbols of hope and peace.
In the words of my mentor, Pastor Melody Eastman:
Resurrection promise isn’t about getting back what we’ve lost.
It is about being offered a new hope and a new joy that is different from anything
we anticipated or expected or could have hoped for.
Sometimes that makes it hard to reach for.
Sometimes to reach out for a hope that we do not understand is a difficult thing.
It would be much easier to reach back to a hope that we remember,
to claim something that was,
but that is not what Jesus offers you today.
Not the chance to go back to what was,
but to claim a new hope that exceeds your expectations.
My favorite Easter hymn is the one we sang just before the Gospel reading.
The bold Alleluias are fun to sing –
but what speaks to my heart are the gentler strains of
Now the Green Blade Rises.
Now the green blade rises from the buried grain
Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain
love lives again, that with the dead has been
Love is come again like wheat that rises green.
Sometimes, some of us get a bold, bright miracle in our lives -
new life and revelation with a blast of a trumpet.
But I think Easter comes into our lives most often like this hymn – slowly, gently.
We tend the ground patiently
in the hope that green shoots will again peek out from the earth.
We gather shards of broken glass that could cut our hands and feet –
and maybe they do, and we bleed, and we weep.
But we hold the glass out to God, and with God
we shape it into something new and beautiful and full of hope.
In the grave they laid him, Love by hatred slain
thinking that never would he wake again
Sometimes in our lives we reach the end.
And that is where God meets us with the promise of Easter.
A promise of new life.
A promise, not that we will get back what has been lost –
but that we can have new joy, new peace,
new life beyond what we have imagined.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Amen.
June 5, 2011
Return from Sabbatical
Easter 7, the Ascension of Jesus
Hi. My name is Brian, and I’m your Rector.
It’s very good to be back. Sometimes distance does make the heart grow fonder, and during my sabbatical, I realized how much I enjoy my life and work with you. So I’m more than ready to dive in and start the next phase of our life together.
I want to thank you for the precious time you gave to me. It was one of the greatest gifts for my life that I have ever received. It unfolded just the way it needed to, and I think the Spirit and I used it well. The effects will be with me forever, some of which, I hope, will have an impact on my continuing ministry with you.
Next week, we’ll have an end-of-sabbatical party, together with our bishop’s visitation. And then later this month, there will be an opportunity to share what you and I have both experienced and learned over these past 7 months.
But today is a mixture of joy and sadness, because in addition to my return, we have to say goodbye to Fr. Daniel, who now takes up duties as the Canon to the Ordinary, the bishop’s assistant. But more on that later.
As I’ve been away from regular church life for an extended period of time, I’ve been thinking a lot about all this stuff we do. I’ve considered deeply why I am a priest, and how I want to serve. Daniel and I have had long conversations about his sense of call into diocesan life. And I’ve thought about you - why you’re motivated to give so much of yourselves.
At the heart of it, I think what we are all doing is making movements into the divine dimension, even as we are rooted in this world. We are seeking a higher life, a love and a power that is both within and beyond our more mundane concerns. As a faith community, we support one another as we seek this higher life, and that’s worth a lot. For where else does this happen?
That’s really what our first reading is about today, the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. The Feast of the Ascension was last Thursday, and we repeat the story today. As a literal story, it is hard to picture, almost ridiculous – Jesus, with a resurrected body that is sort of like it was before but sort of not, zooming up through the clouds, into the skies, to go…where?
I’ve always had more interest in this story as a message about how we ascend, along with Christ – how we are called to a higher life, into the divine dimension with him. We prayed this, in fact, in the Collect for today: Exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.
During his very human life on earth, Jesus also lived in the divine dimension, what he called the kingdom of God. And as our model and guide, as our advance scout, he went there before us, and invites us to follow where he led the way.
But we have to be mindful about how we do this. Many base their religion – or their spirituality, if you prefer – on the delusion that they can ascend beyond their humanity and live entirely in the divine dimension. If they work it just right, they’ll transcend suffering, they won’t hurt anyone ever again, and they’ll live in peaceful bliss and love forever.
I like to think of our humanity as porous, hopefully more and more porous as we mature in faith. We’re very much human, but the Spirit blows through us - sometimes invited, sometimes uninvited, sometimes noticed, sometimes not - so that there is this constant interplay of humanity and divinity. Like the disciples in the first reading today, our feet are grounded here on earth, but we’re also looking up into heaven. Occasionally our heart even lifts us up there for a spell.
As I said, that’s what we’re doing as a church – making movements into the divine dimension. Whether we worship, paint icons, have parties, ask for anointing when we’re sick, or feed the hungry, we are ascending, we are making movements into a higher life.
But it doesn’t happen automatically, just because we show up here. It takes some intention and a willingness to peer into that divine dimension. We will find if we seek; the door will be opened if we knock. And church, I think, is one big opportunity, in all that we do, to seek and to knock.
Over the last 7 months I have slowed down enough to be able to do this. It has been an incredible luxury, a kind of extended retreat, where I have had the freedom and time to listen for and then follow wherever God might be leading me each day, whether that was to an internal place or into some external activity.
It was something like the relationship between an attuned mother and her baby. Such a mother’s internal radar is always on. Whether the baby is in the crib or crawling on the floor, a part of the mother is always tuned in to sounds, gestures, or intangible communication that tells her what the baby needs and how to respond. My wife is still attuned to our grown sons. If they’re on an airplane or going into an important meeting or a doctor’s appointment, her radar is definitely on.
Well, I’ve had the space in order to be that attuned mother, as it were. I’ve kept my radar on, so that each day, I might sense the Spirit leading me towards this book or that woodworking project, towards a conversation with a friend, towards writing, or just being present, with God, to a particular state of mind and heart I was in.
As I reflected during my sabbatical on what we’re doing as church, on what I’m doing as a priest, I remembered that this is the heart of my calling - to practice that same attunement to the Spirit, together with you.
And so I want to spend more time with you in spiritual direction and pastoral care, to listen to how you are seeking God, and what your faith struggles are. I want to talk with you who are ministry leaders about how your groups might be more available to the Spirit as you go about your work. I want to teach more. I want to bring my whole attention to worship, because it is the most powerful movement into the divine dimension that we do together regularly.
In short, think that at this point in my life and ministry, I can bring more to the how of church life than the what of it. You might ask “Isn’t this what you’ve always done?” Well, yes and no. It is possible for clergy to become so busy with the mechanics of parish life that we don’t have any energy left for the heart of the matter. And at times that happens for me.
So I intend to start up again by putting first things first. And Daniel, I’d like to suggest that you, too, find this same center in your diocesan work, by asking yourself in everything you do if you are helping people to ascend into the divine dimension.
In the end, this is not only the job of clergy. All the people of God are part of it, and that’s why we are all given the Holy Spirit – to help us, and those whose lives we touch, make this movement into the divine dimension, day by day.
Next week we will celebrate this gift on the Feast of Pentecost. Claim the Spirit your own. Attune yourself, listen to where this Spirit bids you follow. And together, we will ascend to that place where Christ has gone before.
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Sunday May 29, 2011 Easter 6A
Text: John 14: 15-21
Preacher: Christopher McLaren
Theme: The Lord the Giver of Life
When I went away to college I was scared. For the first week of school I hid out in my dorm room, ate my meals off-campus, managed to miss the school activity fair and otherwise was rather unsocial. It was a bad situation. I really didn’t know a soul and I had only one piece of advice from an older friend that, by God’s grace, I eventually acted upon. He had said, “Look up InterVarsity Christian fellowship when you get to campus.” Somehow in my misery I managed to call the campus activities office, get the number of the leader and make contact. A few hours later Clyde Ohta the InterVarsity minister, a kind of college chaplain, knocked on the door of a very lonely and isolated freshman and it was the work of the Holy Spirit.
So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to send them another advocate so that they will not be orphaned and alone in this world, I remember the moment that smiling, friendly, welcoming person of Clyde Ohta walked through my door and invited me to go get a coffee at the campus Bistro. I didn’t know it at the time but it was a moment of God’s deep provision in my life, a crossing over to safety. For Clyde became a mentor and friend a confidant, counselor, coach, and evangelist in my life, nurturing my faith, thoughtfully nudging me into maturity, listening deeply and challenging me to grow in so many ways. And through that discipling relationship I discovered a deep community of other Christian students and found my own interest in ministry.
I believe this is what our passage today is actually talking about. Jesus promises his disciples his own continuing presence in the person of the Holy Spirit, who will be with them without fail if they are open and follow in his ways. This advocate is an incredible and intimate gift. Jesus describes the relationship as abiding within us, linked to our very person. So, if you’ve ever thought you were alone in the world this passage intends to challenge that understanding in a rather mystical way.
Every week we proclaim our faith in the Holy Spirit in the words of the Nicene Creed:
We believe in the Holy Spirit the Lord the giver of life.
Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the prophets.
It’s a powerful bit of proclamation but when I look at the 4 lines I’m tempted to say, “It that it?” Is that all we believe about the Holy Spirit? It seems to me that the Spirit might have gotten the gooey end of the stick at the council of Nicea. Only four lines about the great gift that Jesus promises his followers: The Advocate, The Comforter, The Helper, The Spirit of the living God available to each of us at all times, just four little lines? Perhaps the Holy Spirit needed a better PR agent who would really celebrate his accomplishments and praise his skills? I’m sure the Holy Spirit has a better resume than that.
I’m not sure if you feel the same way but too often the Holy Spirit seems like the forgotten member of the Trinity: a kind of third wheel that we don’t really pay attention to. As a child I learned that the Greek word for this special helper was Parakletos, from which we get our word Paraclete not to be confused with parakeet. This of course caused me quite a lot of confusion in my childhood, the dove of the spirit and the parakeet, I’m meant they were both birds. We like many Bible translators talked about the Holy Spirit as The Comforter or Helper which is a very attractive job description.
But I have to confess that Comforter while it is a welcome title also sounds a little mamby pamby, to me. I’m not sure about you but I’ve been guilty of associating comfort almost entirely with sorrow and helping us to cope with loss and to be sure the Holy Spirit does comfort us in our affliction, but to limit the scope of work to this is a deep misunderstanding. The Holy Spirit is a gift for all of life. One way to say it is that the Spirit helps us to cope with all of life and to thrive instead of becoming cynical or dispirited or discouraged which are such easy temptations in our world.
The Greek word parakletos is really difficult to translate. The truth is that the word Comforter that is often used is really not an adequate translation. Others have translated it as Helper or Advocate. But we need to look more deeply into the meaning of the word to catch a glimpse of what kind of assistance Christ is really promising those who love him.
Parakletos really means someone who is called in – but it is the reason why the person is called in which gives the word it distinctive associations. The Greeks used this word in a wide variety of ways. Parakletos might be someone called in to give witness in a law court in someone’s favor. One might be an advocate to come in and plead on behalf of one in a serious case; he might be an expert called into give advice in a difficult situation; he might be someone called in to speak and work with a company of soldiers or a team who are depressed, dispirited and perhaps unable to continue, the parakletos was one who could heal and instill bravery within the group again.
The Greek understanding of the word parakletos had within it not just comfort in times of sorrow but also inspiration, encouragement, the remaking of vision and re-energizing of people for the work or life in front of them. This to me is a much more powerful understanding of the role of the Spirit than a mere comforter in sorrow and gives new meaning to the line of the Creed describing the Spirit as, “The Lord the giver of Life.”
We may not want to admit it, but we often see only what we are prepared to see. I suspect that the reason we do not always recognize the Spirit at work in the world or in our lives is because we have not nurtured the capacity to recognize the Spirit. We’ve allowed the world around us to tell us that God does not care, that God is silent, that God is just watching from a distance. I remember when I took my first architectural history class. I had really hardly noticed the architecture around me. But suddenly I was fitted for noticing it. I had categories for understanding it, talking about it, appreciating it and I began to find the world of buildings so much more interesting and alive. Botanists see a whole different world walking through the open space than we might. It is the same with the Spirit. The friends of Jesus, receive a gift, an awareness, of the Spirit alive and at work in our lives and the world around us.
How do we recognize the Spirit? Our capacity for the Spirit is developed through worship, sharing of faith stories, study of scripture, time in prayer, and our reaching out in love and compassion to those who are in pain or need. What we see and experience is shaped by what we bring to the experience, how we are sighted. And what this Gospel is telling us is that the community around Jesus is infused with the Spirit, gifted with Spirit-sight, Spirit-awareness, Spirit-sensitivity, Spirit-nudging, Spirit-encouraging, Spirit-convicting, Spirit-filledness. All of this is true to the degree that we open ourselves to the Spirit, realizing that to live the Christian life is not to do so under our own steam alone but to be rather gifted, filled, empowered, directed by the very presence of God in our lives.
For us I think that means that the degree to which we are open in prayer and acceptance of God’s movement in our lives it the degree that we like Jesus become Spirit-people. As one commentator said, “The Holy Spirit gate-crashes no one’s heart.” The Spirit is always available always ready to be received and this is truly important work for each of us.
The sign of the Spirit at work according to John is very simple, loving obedience. For John the evidence of the Spirit at work in the lives of Jesus’ friends was obedience to God’s ways. Love is shown in being faithful to the ways of forgiveness, compassion, acceptance of others, nurturing the young, caring for the sick and needy, living simply, sharing what you have, giving even when it is difficult, remaining hopeful, speaking truth in love, walking with others through their pain and loss. Love for John is never some cozy sentiment or nice idea it is always an action, a self-giving movement, a way of stretching the soul into a God-like shape.
We all know and experience people who say they love us or their families but they are forever acting in ways that are incredibly hurtful and damaging. For Jesus the hallmark of love was acting in faithful obedience to the ways of God.
The Creed also reminds us that the “Holy Spirit has spoken through the prophets” giving us Holy Wisdom throughout the ages. Interestingly the figure of wisdom is feminine in scripture. And what is it that the prophets do so well? They remind us of what it means to be faithful. They call us back to our best selves, our core values, our covenant way of life. They remind us that being in relationship with the living God requires our own best efforts and the word of our own deepest self. The prophets were forever reminding the people of God that they had been strangers in the strange land so don’t treat the undocumented in harsh or unloving ways. They reminded them that it is easy to lose everything and become poor or widowed or unemployed, so don’t forget that God loves mercy and cheers for the compassionate, those who can suffer with others.
The Good News in all of this is that we are not alone in trying to please God or attempting to walk in the ways of Christ. No, we have an advocate, a helper, a coach, a prophet, a Holy kick in the pants to do the right thing, to show our love through obedience because in the end it is not just our kind and moral thoughts that matter, it is our actions our Orthopraxis if you will our right living. For too long we’ve allowed Christianity to be defined in our tradition as Orthodoxy – right belief but John’s teaching on the Spirit this day reminds us that without the obedience of love our faith doesn’t really amount to much, our proclamations of faith don’t impress the world, it is our love in action, our Orthopraxis our right action that really changes things that really demonstrates to the world that the Spirit is alive and well and active within each of us holding us in life and offering new life to the world.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, “The Lord the giver of life” who is not only a comfort in our sorrow but wisdom, vision, energy and the urging of God in our life, moving us forward in a Godward direction, into fullness of life. The real question is “Where is the Spirit at work in your life?” for that is Christ’s promise to each of us.
Acts 7:55-60, I Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 22, 2011
St. Michael and All Angels
Each gospel account of the resurrection gives an update on the stone that blocks the entrance to the tomb. In Mark, the women wonder who will roll it away. In Matthew, after the earthquake an angel rolls back the stone and sits on it. In Luke and John, the stone is rolled away before the first witnesses arrive. While Easter Sunday was a month ago, we are clearly not finished with stones. We move this morning from rolling a stone away from Jesus’ tomb to becoming living stones built into a spiritual house. The stoning of Stephen eerily resembles Jesus’ crucifixion. Stones appear throughout scripture. Jacob uses a stone for a pillow on a night that changes his life. When he awakens and realizes he met God in the night, he creates an altar using that stone. Moses carries two stone tablets down a mountain with God’s 10 commandments. Joshua builds a memorial using 12 stones to tell the story of God’s saving action when their children ask, “What do these stones mean?” It seems to me, when stones show up this many times in the lectionary on a Sunday, we need to pay attention. What are the stones telling us today?
In John’s gospel, Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples. You can feel their anxiety. “Where are you going? We don’t know the way. If you will show us the way, we’ll be satisfied.” We all know that just hearing the next step isn’t going to satisfy. But that isn’t the point. Jesus is clearly not going to give them a blueprint or a gps. He isn’t willing to give them all the answers. He promises to be present with them and he tells them that not only will they continue the work he began; they will do even greater works.
It reminds me of God’s call to Moses to go to Pharaoh and lead the people out of Egypt and a life of slavery. Just a small thing, really. So Moses asks a fair question, “What kind of guarantee can I get if I take this on?” And this is all he gets…”I will be with you.” Seriously??? Is that the best you can do? We know the story. We know that it was enough, but we also know it was hard, extraordinarily hard. Here is Jesus offering that same less than comforting promise. “I’m going to be with God, but I’ll still be with you.” I think the disciples’ anxiety is completely justified…as is ours.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Actually, it’s a pretty big secret. We don’t know how to do church. Oh sure, we have a structure, we have forms for worship, we have policies that we follow. But we are in the same boat as those early disciples. We are asked to be the church in an ever-changing world…or to quote Peter, “you are God’s people in order that you may proclaim God’s mighty acts.” We saw where that got Stephen.
Jesus left the disciples to carry on his work in the world, but he didn’t leave them a manual or rulebook. They had walked with him and now he was asking them to continue healing, teaching, sharing the good news with others. When Peter says that we should be living stones and allow ourselves to be built into a spiritual house, I wonder what kind of openness it requires on our part to do that. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message, it says, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14) Can we allow that same Word to move into us?
I told you the big secret because being the church doesn’t mean having all the answers. It doesn’t mean following a plan, though plans aren’t all bad. It has a lot more to do with being a living organism that allows the Spirit to move through us. That doesn’t sound bad until we start to try and live open to the Spirit. Then it is tempting to become like Philip and say, “just show us the way and we’ll be satisfied.”
The power of the resurrection isn’t just that Jesus was raised from the dead. It is that we are given the power to be God’s people in the world. Jesus doesn’t need to be physically standing here for us to do God’s work. From the beginning, we have been given the power to be God’s people and no owner’s manual. You might say that we have a manual now. The Bible provides a powerful account of God’s saving presence over time and the promise that God continues to be with us, but it isn’t a play by play book with every answer we’ll ever need…including the date of the rapture. Instead, it teaches us that what is critical is forming a relationship with God and a community. It is through our relationship that we discover what is next.
We don’t begin a marriage knowing how to be married. We learn that in relationship with one another. We don’t become parents knowing all that we need to know about parenting. We learn as we go. We learn in relationship with our children. The same is true for the church. We learn how to be church in relationship with one another and with God. We learn how to care for our community not by reading the headlines in the paper, but by being in relationship with people outside the walls of our church.
Sixteen months ago we began ReImagine. We didn’t begin with the answers. We knew that it was time for St. Michaels to step back and reflect. This is how we did it. We invited everyone to join us. Everyone is still invited. We meet tomorrow night at 5:30. We gather regularly to get to know one another, to study scripture and to grow as a community. We recognized the central place of Eucharist at St. Michaels and decided to deepen our understanding of that. What does it mean to be fed at this table week after week? What does it mean when we walk out the doors? This year, we have focused on baptism and how it impacts us as individuals and as a community of faith. We began to talk to one another and over 300 conversations happened as a result. We are doing that again this year. I loved Christopher’s question a few weeks ago, “Have you ever been changed by a conversation?”
The disciples were. Moses was. We see over and over in scripture, lives changed by a conversation. Abraham and Sarah were open enough to talk to a stranger and discovered that they were going to have a baby in their old age. Jesus talked to people and they were healed from lifelong afflictions.
Last week, I heard Tom Long speak. He is considered one of the greatest preachers in the country right now. I was so impressed that I got his book called Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and read it right away. One story he tells is of Deborah, a bookstore clerk who shows up to open the store one morning and encounters a Hasidic Jew who asked if he could come in. Inside the man told her that he wanted to know about Jesus. Deborah took him to the section on Christianity and started to walk away when the man said, “No, I want to know about Jesus the Messiah. Don’t show me any more books. You tell me what you believe.” Deborah realized that for the first time in her life she was being asked to put her faith into words and here is what she said, “My Episcopal soul shivered. I gulped and told him everything I could think of …as much as I could sputter out in my confusion, in the dark.” (p. 21-22)
Last year when we proposed talking to each other one on one, many “Episcopal souls shivered”. Then we began talking to one another and it is changing the culture of this congregation. We are beginning another season of listening and I want to invite you to participate. Remember how Jesus connected with people? He talked to them.
In my first congregation, a small rural church in Oregon, I led a Lenten series on prayer. The folks of that congregation were largely in their 70’s and 80’s. Most of them had been in that same church their whole lives. One day I asked them about their own experience of prayer. It got very quiet. They looked at the floor and I said, “Have you ever talked about this before?” They said no. I said, “Where are you going to talk about this? At the gas station? The convenience store? The library? We are the church. This is where we talk about God.”
But we forget. We get so caught up in techniques and practices that we have to be reminded to talk about God. In the church, we focus on the business and miss many opportunities to share our lives with one another. For so many of us, the very idea of sharing our faith is terrifying. Lynna Williams wrote a short story called “Personal Testimony” about a 12 year old minister’s daughter at a Southern Baptist summer camp who earns hundreds of dollars one summer running a “ghost writing service for Jesus”. Charging $5-$20 she composes personal testimonies of conversion and repentance that they are expected to give each night at evening worship. (Testimony, p. 4) It makes me laugh to think about it, but then it makes me very sad to think that talking about God is terrifying… even in church. I think we’ve gotten it wrong.
One of our hang-ups is that if we speak about faith, others will discover our fears, our emptiness, our disappointment, and anything else that is less than perfect…as if we were the only ones who ever had that experience. When I was first ordained, I participated in a monthly retreat with a group of other newly ordained clergy. I remember in a dark room late one night talking with my roommate about my failures in ministry and all that I didn’t know and discovering she too had failed and she too had no idea what she was doing. And somehow that set me free.
God talk is not just talk about God, it is participation in the life of God. Tom Long says that to “speak truthfully about God is also to enter a world in which God is present and trusted. To speak about God is to be in relationship with God, which means speaking about God is more than speaking about God; it is also speaking for, in, with, and to God. Authentic speech about God, therefore, can be said to be a form of prayer.” (Testimony p. 11)
I believe that when people search for a church, they are looking for a place where God is alive. God comes alive in and through us. That never means that we have it all together. That never means that we know what we are doing. That never means success only. We get the idea that we need to be perfect before we ever open our mouth from the world around us, not from the Bible, which is full of people making mistakes and learning as they go.
Dorothy Day said “If I have ever achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Theologian Walter Bruggmann said, “The words with which we praise God shape the world in which we shall live.”
Our community is shaped by our words…not just the words of sermons and clergy. We are shaped by our conversations with one another. This is a small example, but when Christopher sends an email, he often addresses us “beloved of God”. I think he is shaping reality every time he uses those words. Of course, this isn’t the first time we have heard that God loves us. But how are we impacted each time we hear the words “beloved of God”? What would it mean to believe those words and to live as God’s beloved?
I’m guessing today you will want to run out as soon as church is over and pretend this sermon never happened. Brian has jokingly called this congregation “St. Michael and all introverts”. You certainly have the option of ignoring the call to share our lives with one another, but choosing to do so means that we all lose. Over and over again, we are called beyond the places of comfort and ease that we create for ourselves to risk being God’s people in the world. We cannot determine where this will lead, but we can be sure that God is among us reminding us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness into the marvelous light.”
Long, Thomas G. Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004.
Peterson, Eugene. The Message. Colorado Springs: NavPress Publishing