The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 15, 2019
Paul’s first letter to Timothy informs us that, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” I’m not inclined to harp on the sinner part too much. Most of us know that in some way we are broken if we have any self-awareness at all. I’d rather love people into the Gospel, however, rather than try and judge them into it. Yet, so that we have a common understanding here, I understand “sinner” to mean that we have a broken relationship with God and with each other that needs healing. We keep missing the mark of God’s vision for us and the whole earth. It is the vision of justice, peace and mercy for every single human being.
That’s why we get such stern words from the prophet Jeremiah, because we human beings always have and keep messing things up. “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” Well! That’s a message that will suck the wind out of a good party.
In response, God, rather than give up and abandon us, chooses in Jesus to “leap down from heaven” as is said in the ancient antiphon to the Song of Mary. Or, to quote from that wonderful Christmas hymn: “Love came down at Christmas.” Today’s Gospel/Good News gives us in a couple of parables what that passionate love of God looks like and it seems to me a perfect thing to remember in the midst of a celebration of a new relationship in ministry with Fred.
St. Luke portrays God’s love that looks like a shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after one that has become lost. God’s love also looks like a woman who sweeps the house, every single nook and cranny, to find the one lost coin. These are pictures of God’s pursuit of us. They sound great don’t they, even heartwarming? But please note—in neither case is this normal expected behavior, yet it is God’s behavior Jesus is telling us. As is often the case, Jesus turns expectations around in order to surprise us into a new vision that transforms us into Kingdom people. Here’s what I mean.
The shepherd goes off to find the one that strayed. Anyone listening to that parable would declare this to be an incompetent shepherd. No shepherd who knows what he’s doing would go off for just one. When he got back he wouldn’t have the 99! And of course in every day practice it is our tendency to write off the one lost and be thankful still to have the 99. We cut our losses. We might call it collateral damage. The religious righteous who are challenging Jesus would leave to their own devices, by expelling or shunning, those who wander off, those who don’t conform, those who won’t be like us.
That’s what the Pharisees did as their teaching was that it was better to stay with the 99. Jesus throws in the big reversal of a story as if it is normative behavior and shocks the stuffing out of them. You can be sure that it was not lost on the tax collectors and sinners, however, the ones on the edge who always experienced rejection.
Then of course there is the woman sweeping her house for the lost coin, again as if it is the norm. And it would be, for the poor. But the Pharisees? They wouldn’t waste their time. Jesus is telling of a God who gives of self, one who leaps down from heaven, dies for the one who looks most expendable or worthless to the rest. This is also not lost on the so-called tax collectors and sinners within earshot.
Jesus again overturns expectations, always challenging the norm with a new Kingdom possibility. What is being said here, in the words of a seven-year-old who had heard this Gospel and gave a succinct and clear interpretation: “God gets more happy from one person who messes up than a bunch who stay good.” Is that offensive to our sense of fairness, that mystery that one criminal, one drug dealer, one petty thief, one person on death row, who is drawn back to the flock prompts more joy than then those of us who never fall off the cliff or run into brambles?
That can be hard to embrace especially when polite society seeks to make invisible those who do not measure up to our standards.
So where does that leave us? What the Pharisees wouldn’t see, couldn’t see, is that they too were lost. They saw no common ground with the sinners and tax collectors. They and we are called to drop our well-constructed facades and be honest about our own inability to measure up, our “foolishness” as Jeremiah calls it, our lost-ness, and see that we are in the same boat in our brokenness as every other human being. I’ll never, ever forget Mother Teresa’s words to me almost 30 years ago: “Unless we recognize the Hitler that is in all of us we are in grave spiritual danger.” Not doing so makes it very difficult to be open to Jesus’ call, to being found, which ushers in pure joy and hope.
God seeks to rejoice with us. It was C.S. Lewis who said that the clearest indicator of a Christian is joy. Joy not being mere happiness, but a deep centered grounding in the hope of God. There can be no better reminder as you embark on this time of new ministry between priest and people. Christianity is not a religion of rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts. It is a religion of celebration, of a party, of Eucharist, as we discover a God who rejoices in us and among us. We were lost. Now we are found. Fred and people of Edisto—Celebrate!
The Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: July 7, 2019
It has been said that “all Christian ethics is a therefore ethics.” Because Jesus lived, died, and rose again, therefore we live a certain way as an act of thanksgiving for such a gift. I would add that all Christian action, all Christian service, all Christian worship, springs and leaps from the “therefore.” St. Paul reminds us that we are to “Never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul, through his baptism, and we through our own baptism, have died to wanting life on our terms only.
On the cross we see the icon of God’s continual self-offering: “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” That pattern is found in the whole creation by the way in which God has woven it together. We are called to participate with God in this manner of being as we walk the planet. “So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at the harvest time if we do not give up” (Galatians6:9). You of St. Francis certainly have not given up. Therefore, because God has offered himself to us in one another and the entire creation through stars and planets, music, a beautiful soufflé, a garden in the back yard, bread and wine, a painted bunting flitting about, a person next to you this very morning; we keep the feast. St. Francis Church—your call is to keep the feast and repeat God’s pattern of self-offering over and over and over again. We practice being the “new creation” in here, in holy drama, so that we can live it out there, in harvest land.
So it is that Luke grants us the vision that Jesus is Lord of the harvest. He is seeking to reap that harvest in us and through us everywhere and at all times. We are invited to participate with him, even through celebrating with Claire being received today, aware that such a harvest does not always come in ways we expect.
A couple of years ago Bonnie and I were in Alaska for a House of Bishops meeting. Not having a car, we used Uber one day to go out to do some errands. The driver, a young woman in her 20’s, struck up a conversation. Along the way she asked why we were there. We shared that we were present at the invitation of the Bishop and Episcopal Church of Alaska, and that the day before we as bishops and spouses were out in the communities engaging with people in conversation about their mission, worshiping together and participating in the blessing of the land among native peoples. Upon hearing this she got very quiet. Then with tears welling up in her eyes, she explained that when she was driving the day before she had been suddenly overcome by a deep sense of peace and found her heart full of delight, even exaltation, that she was alive and in that land. In telling our story she became aware that this had occurred when we were engaged in the blessing prayers.
After a most animated ongoing conversation, we went so far as to invite her to the community of bishops Eucharist to be held back at our hotel in a couple of hours. She dropped us off, we never expecting her to show up, but lo and behold as we later walked down the hall for worship, there she was! She sat with us, participated, heard the Presiding Bishop preach, went around energetically sharing “the peace” with everyone, and went on her way rejoicing, back to driving for Uber that evening.
Perhaps you will recall a wonderful question from Psalm 78: “Can God set a table (an altar), in the wilderness?” It refers there to the Israeli wilderness, but it could be a waiting-for-a-court-to-act wilderness, a personal wilderness, or any context in which we might encounter a wilderness marked by uncertainty and unknowing. The promise of today is in the Lord of the harvest telling us in mercy and hope that not only can God do so, God does do so and calls us to do the same!
It is the same hope we discover in the I Kings reading today when Elisha confers the grace of God’s healing power on a leprous Gentile enemy, Naaman, who has, interestingly, crossed the border. Not only that, if the culturally powerless little girl had not spoken up, thereby exercising her God-given power, the healing would never have occurred. The whole story is one of how ignorance and misconception that limits how we expect God to act, becomes through mercy and healing genuine new awareness. Even Naaman’s misconceptions about how a prophet operates and what proper healing was to look like got challenged as God’s intervention came from an unexpected place. What does that teach us?
There is no place God is not, whether it be in an Uber ride, in a little girl before a great warrior, or a so-called enemy. We receive again today great words of commissioning: “…ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Note that it is “his harvest,” not ours. Sure, it can seem hostile or even threatening like lambs in the midst of wolves, yet we also know Isaiah’s vision that the lamb and the wolf will lie down together. Our cause is the pursuit of peace and reconciliation.
We gather today before Luke’s Kingdom vision of the harvest in anticipation of the full reign of God where all are fed, perfect equity and justice are realized, no one has to flee violence and hatred, and all have access to God’s bounty in a community of love founded in mercy. You and I are to be setting up God’s altar anywhere and everywhere as a harvest people, sometimes setting the table yourself and sometimes having it set for you. It is why God has brought together this particular constellation of people at St. Francis. You and I are to be God’s “therefore.” Because God is beauty, abundance, generosity and grace, therefore we keep the feast here, so that we can be the feast out there.
Dear Friends of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,
I commend to you the following article regarding The Episcopal Church’s response to the crisis that continues to unfold at our southern border. No matter where one may stand on the complex issues of immigration, refugees and border security, I trust you will see that we are seeking to do so in a manner that is grounded in prayer and seeks action that is rooted in the Gospel. I encourage you to engage the resources that are available and to which the article directs us.
My work with the people of El Salvador since 1996 has shown me, often with heartbreak, that many people fleeing violence and persecution identify as being a part of Christ's Body, the Church. They therefore are a part of us. What happens to one part of the Body affects us all. How we love them as our neighbor and respect their dignity as made in the image of God is an essential tenet of who we are called to be as a people of Jesus.
My hope is that you will engage conversations with one another about who we are as a country not from partisan political perspectives, but from a place of deep reflection upon the Hebrew prophetic and Gospel traditions. May you have a blessed celebration of Independence Day in the name of the One Lord who sets us all free.
Episcopal Church response to crisis on the border
July 2, 2019Author: The Episcopal Church Office of Public Affairs
Over the past several weeks, The Episcopal Church has responded to the reports of inhumane conditions for children and other asylum seekers in government custody in a number of ways. This response includes calls for donations and goods from Episcopal dioceses on the border, prayers for those seeking safety, efforts to engage in advocacy, and pastoral messages from bishops around the Church.
“We are children of the one God who is the Creator of us all,” said Presiding BishopMichael Curry. “It is our sisters, our brothers, our siblings who are seeking protection and asylum, fleeing violence and danger to children, searching for a better life for themselves and their children. The crisis at the border is not simply a challenge of partisan politics but a test of our personal and public morality and human decency.”
The Episcopal Church, through the Office of Government Relations (OGR) and Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM), has compiled a list of resources, bishop statements, and information in response to the ongoing humanitarian situation at the southern border.
“Reports of poor care for children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody and continued policies to limit access to asylum are extremely concerning to people of faith. We must remember these children are here because they cannot find safety anywhere else,” stated Rebecca Linder Blachly, Director of The Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations. “The U.S. has an established system to process asylum seekers, who are coming to the U.S. legally. The response to asylum seekers who are desperate and afraid should not be deterrence or detention. We have the capability to respond in a humane and compassionate manner, and I am grateful for everyone in The Episcopal Church who is responding to this crisis.”
The list of resources for education and support is available on the EMM website and will continue to be updated with ways to learn more and take action. The OGR and EMM webinar with Bishop Michael Hunn of the Diocese of Rio Grande will be made available on-demand through this website as well.
“The enormity of the challenge is daunting. It is easy to feel helpless to make a difference. While we cannot do everything, we can do something,” said Curry. “The links to resources of bishops and dioceses on the border, the Office of Government Relations and Episcopal Migration Ministries offer practical suggestions for how we can each and together do something.”
The Office of Government Relations represents the policy priorities of The Episcopal Church to the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. This office aims to shape and influence policy and legislation on critical issues, highlighting the voices and experiences of Episcopalians and Anglicans globally. All of its work is grounded in the resolutions of General Convention and Executive Council, the legislative and governing bodies of the church. Connecting Episcopalians to their faith by educating, equipping and engaging them to do the work of advocacy through the Episcopal Public Policy Network (EPPN) is a key aspect of this work.
Episcopal Migration Ministries is a ministry of The Episcopal Church and is one of nine national agencies responsible for resettling refugees in the United States in partnership with the government. Episcopal Migration Ministries currently has 13 affiliate offices in 12 states. To directly support EMM and its life-changing work, visit www.episcopalmigrationministries.org/give or text ‘EMM’ to 41444 (standard messaging and data may rates apply).
Click here for an audio recording of this sermon at the St. Anne's website.
The Day of Pentecost: June 9, 2018
“In our own languages we hear them, speaking about God’s deeds of power.” So goes one description from the book of the Acts of the Apostles in Luke’s account of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all flesh. Apparently it was a rather noisy event, what with the wind and the utterance of various languages. More often than not what is first noted is the speaking, the expressions of the tongue. Yet, is this a day we celebrate a miracle of the tongue, or could it be more a miracle of the ear? If we give more attention to the miracle of the ear, the listening, even engaging the ear of the heart, we might discover more the depths of the Spirit who “prays in us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Consider this account from a then 17-year-old, someone dear to me, preparing for Confirmation. We’ll call her Mary. This is a part of her story in her words:
“One Tuesday afternoon on the porch my grandfather sat reading to quench his intellectual thirst, and I sat a couple of feet away desperately clinging to my homework and not the nice day. My eyes, through with staring at my sunlit physics problems, gave in and looked up at the woods in front of me.
“I saw a sleepy wood grazing in the sun pick up a gust of wind and throw it at my face, causing some of my papers to fall askew. I saw three birds leap up from a tree and scatter into the distance. I saw the pollen rise into the air, the very particles that would keep me irritated for the next three days. I saw three ants trail through the condensation made by my grandfather’s water glass and create a swirly pattern on the table. I saw, what I believe to be, God at work.
“I could not explain it to you, but I do believe that the woods behind my house that day spoke God to me. The weekend before I had been dancing to my heart’s content at a local theatre. I was performing a duet and three minutes into that dance, the other dancer and I stare each other down. In her eyes I saw the fire from performance, the understanding two people have from working with each other for nine years, and a love for dance. Through those eyes, I believe, I saw God at work.
“A good while ago for me, not so long for some, and an age for others, I was sitting in the car with Mom. I had asked some question about God and we had a long chat. I specifically remember her telling me that when she was confused or lost she would look down at the palm of her hand and feel comforted. She then asked me how could something so intricate, so unique to herself, could not be made by God? I looked down at my own palm and I could not see God in it. I tried three more times, each failing. I can see it now, however.
“When I signed up for Confirmation class the motivation at the time was convenience. I did not know when else I would get the chance and I liked church, so why not? Now I know I can be confirmed, because I have confirmed that I believe what I say. I know that the gate of which Jesus spoke is the gate through which I need to walk, because when I look outside, when I perform, when I listen to music, read a book, go to a museum, or look at the palm of my hand, I see the imprint of God there, and I love it.”
A gust of wind from the woods was this young woman’s Pentecost, a manifestation pointing to every Pentecost in all of creation occurring every second of every day. It rose up unannounced and took her to new places. It filled her and everything around her, witnessing to the promise that the Spirit has been poured out “upon all flesh” (Acts 2:17). She became aware of the language of the forest and it empowered her to hear with new ears and thus see with new eyes. God, pouring out God’s Spirit on all creation will bring forth, among others, her “daughters to prophesy,” even to dance in union with the Holy One. We hear of it in Mary’s account. What we receive from this young woman is a glimpse of the Spirit witnessing to her spirit and ours. She awakened when the Wind blew from the wood that day, “because he abides with you, and he will be in you” (John 14:17).
Through such intimate experiences of the Spirit, we know ourselves to be, in the words of the Confirmation prayer, strengthened, empowered, and sustained for mission. Today on this Pentecost, the Spirit invites us once again, to live and breathe the story of God so that everyone, of “every race and nation” (Collect for Pentecost) may have the opportunity to hear of the wonderful works of God. We are invited to dream God’s dream for all flesh. It is the only reason St. Anne’s exists, it is the only reason to find land on which to build (and you will find land!), so that this place can continue to be where the dream of God is lived and can take root in us “to the ends of the earth” (Collect for Pentecost) and for the sake of all.
As we seek the language of our own life, the ways we are to speak the story of the wonder of God in us and for us, we celebrate in joy the promise of our baptism that in the Spirit we are sealed forever. So deeply held in love’s embrace we never have to be troubled or afraid. Bob Dylan told us that the answers are “Blowin’ in the wind.” Maybe, just maybe, they’re right in the palm of your hand.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: June 2, 2019
Have you ever had a moment when you had made plans for something, thought you were going in one direction, and then everything around you changed and you ended up in a place you never expected? It can happen in a day when the list you made that morning never gets attended to, or it can happen in one’s entire life-picture when circumstances around us take us in directions we never thought we would go, positive or negative. I recall a movie some years ago, although the title escapes me, where the main character is shown how her life unfolds when she chooses to go through one door on a subway train, and then how her life would have been radically different if she had chosen a different door that morning.
All of life is a constant transition, a time of in-between, that is, leaving what we think we know and moving toward something new or different and yet to be. We see this scene played out in the Book of Acts as it describes a moment in the life of a Roman jailer in Philippi. I am guessing that when he went to work that day he did not expect anything different from his usual duties guarding prisoners, in this case Paul and Silas. But an earthquake occurs, not only shaking up the jail and popping open the doors, but shifting the ground of his entire life. The jailer ends up becoming a follower of Jesus, he and his family are baptized, and his life is never the same again as a whole new unexpected future unfolds.
We are in the midst of the season of graduations and although it is a time of great excitement for many, including the parents, there is an element of the unknown of what life will bring that must be faced. Varying levels of anxiety arise. We experience this in our personal relationships and in our jobs. We certainly experience this in the life of our Diocese as we wait for decisions to be made over which we have no control. Rectors come and go. Bishops retire. In ultimate times of transition, loved ones die. Yet, in the midst of all those life-changes, we hear the great promise in the Gospel today as we listen in on Jesus’ prayer to God as he prepares the disciples for their big transition in the face of his impending execution: “The glory you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one…so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” That’s you and me and Maya, being baptized today! The promise is that he is with us always, sealed forever in his love.
Yet, even with that great promise of presence, we know that parts of life can be excruciatingly difficult. We see the horrifying scenes of destruction from the floods and tornadoes moving across our country. A cursory reading of today’s news events, locally and just yesterday in Virginia Beach, will hand us glaring pictures of death, literal and metaphorical. Just as the disciples and Jesus did, we discover betrayal, broken relationships, violence, language of hatred, bigotry and the drawing of lines in the sand, war, degradation of the beauty of mother earth, and the list goes on. We also know, however, that it is right in the midst of what we find most threatening and fearful that we promise in our baptismal vows to work against everything that corrupts and destroys God’s people and God’s earth – all that conspires against God’s love for the entire creation.
So it is that on this same earth we also discover life and goodness: the beauty of a mountain vista or a piece of art, re-creation in communities restored, possibility, hope, healing, forgiveness and love is renewed. It’s why we like that last good story on the evening news. We may be part of restoring a polluted stream, challenging the systems that keep people in poverty, or assuring interfaith dialogue that deepens relationships and opens the possibility for God’s justice to take root despite the fear mongering in our political environment. It is the ongoing presence of God who promises to restore the earth and establish his reign of love, but it only happens through us. We commit again today to be such followers of Jesus.
We have work to do. Prayer and action go hand in hand. In case we have forgotten, we have been baptized into Jesus’ death in order to be raised with him even now, in this life. Big transitions – it is what we are about, moving from death to life, with Jesus, and trusting the God who promises presence with us no matter what it may be with which we are wrestling. We become the answer to Jesus’ prayer on this earth.
As the Body of Jesus, we go into the world vulnerable, suffering, praising, praying, sometimes misunderstood, misjudged, yet vindicated and celebrating. Sealed by the Spirit through your baptism, you go bearing in your body the dying of Jesus to all that opposes God’s love and justice, so that the life of Jesus may be evident in your life in transforming you and the whole creation. We have the joy of co-creating with God the future God desires for us. We get to do that with you, Maya!
This day reminds us as we hear Jesus’ prayer for unity and love, that our lives are caught up in something far more grand than we can imagine. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Even as Jesus is no longer among us as a man, he now dwells in each of us. We are now Jesus, the ongoing presence of Christ in the world. It is that for which the Church exists. It is what defines us – Christ’s Body now.
The Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 26, 2019
From Jesus in the Gospel of John just read: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and” – get this – “make our home with them.”
Some of you know I like to fly fish. Connecting to God’s creation in this way makes me very attentive to how ecosystems operate. To oversimplify for a moment, if anything in the system gets out of kilter – if the water flow significantly changes or its quality degrades; if the invertebrates that live in the water, the bugs, are harmed in any way; if the aquatic vegetation that is supposed to be there is damaged or invaded by exotics; everything else in that system is compromised, including the fish. Likewise, if each and all those things are healthy the entire system is healthy. This teaches us that the way God has created the world is the most diverse systems are the ones that are the healthiest. It also teaches us that each part of the system must work for the benefit of the other in order to be healthy.
Or ponder two protons. If two of them are in close proximity, as in within the magnetic field of the other, and both are spinning in the same direction, say clockwise, but then one is sent off several million light years away from the other in a neat device called a cyclotron, and then receives an electrical charge to start spinning in the other direction, counterclockwise, guess what happens? The other one, millions of light years away ALSO starts spinning in the opposite direction.
Or maybe you have heard of something called the butterfly effect. There are a lot of variations, but essentially it says something like if a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, you will feel the breeze on your cheek here in McClellanville. It’s a poetic way of saying what the other two examples are saying – that everything is connected. The way that God has created the universe is that everything is in relationship with everything else and one thing cannot happen in one place without it in some way affecting another. We are inextricably linked together in this creation, sometimes in ways in which we are not immediately aware.
And then, what God does, in the midst of this splendid, beautiful, diverse, sometimes puzzling or even cruel universe, is send Jesus, perfect love, right into the middle of us. Jesus says he and the Creator of the universe, through the Spirit, “make our home with them!” We celebrate this truth in our confirmands today as well as in the renewal of our own baptismal vows. Jesus is saying that our relationship with God is being totally redefined by him. As a sign of our connectedness, the Holy Spirit, in whom we are sealed forever, is sent as an Advocate, a continual reminder of God’s love that binds us to God and one another always and everywhere. We are held in the truth that connects and holds the entire universe together—God’s love. God has created the universe in a way that it is all connected.
And even as science shows the connectedness of all things, it is clear to me that the binding agent of a stream ecosystem, or the protons of matter, or the flap of a butterfly wing, is the Spirit of God’s love holding it all together. When there is life and evidence of God’s new Jerusalem, the re-created world of God’s vision breaking in among us, there is the resurrection hope of God’s love holding it together.
We find that we are made for relationships with God and one another, for connection. St. Paul’s vision contains the plea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” We have heard similar words in our own Diocese. “Come over to Walterboro and help us. Come over to Cheraw and help us.” Come over to Denmark, or Florence, or Myrtle Beach or Summerville, name a community, and help us. We even are to risk going “outside the gate,” as the disciples did in the Acts 16 account, looking for and open to wherever God is present and active.
Jesus teaches us that the connecting agent is love, shown forth in the way that we live on this earth. If God has told us once, God in Scripture has told us a thousand times, the answer is love. Not mere tolerance, not just patience or kindness, not only being nice. Those things are great, but they are only of Christ if they are rooted in love – passionate, dancing-with-our-arms-wide-open love for everyone and everything God has made. The love Jesus shows in making his home in us calls us in life to be an offering to God and one another in thanksgiving for the gift of life we have in this amazingly connected world. As a follower of Jesus all of life is to be an act of thanksgiving. When we do so, lives are changed. This is what the confirmands are boldly professing with us as they come forward.
I leave you with these words from an American theologian way back in the 1950’s named Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true, or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context in history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.” “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27), for we boldly proclaim today that Love has made a home in us.
The Fifth Sunday of Easter: May 19, 2019
Have you ever had a dream, a vision, a new awareness, which dramatically shifted how you saw the world or your own life-circumstance? Some years ago a person told me of a dream that had such an impact on her. By tradition and some theological reasons, she was opposed to the ordination of women. Her dream was of herself in church, standing and singing the processional hymn.
This particular day asperges were being done, that is, the priest was sprinkling the congregation with lustral water, blessed to remind them of their baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. All was as usual until she glanced at the procession in anticipation of the priest coming closer to where she stood, but all she saw was the hood of the alb pulled up in a manner not to be able to see the clergyperson’s face. Just as the priest coming up the aisle turned toward her to snap the aspergillum and cast through the air the blessed holy water, she looked at the priest and saw her own face staring right at her, as in a mirror. Hello Dr. Carl Jung. Here comes the punch line: A few years later she was ordained a priest of The Episcopal Church.
This woman’s dream enabled her to consider the possibility of moving beyond the limits of religion that she and others had imposed on at least half of the human population of the earth. We hear in the Acts of the Apostles today a vision that came to Peter that dramatically challenged his religious sensibilities. He accepted the centuries old teachings of the Torah, the laws and guidelines of his faith as found in the Hebrew scriptures, which specifically banned certain items of food as unclean. Shockingly, and we really must appreciate how world-rocking this new vision would have been to Peter and the rest of “the circumcised believers” around him, those dietary restrictions are now set aside. His whole religious system was blown apart.
It went further than food. It was also about the company he kept. The criticism leveled upon Peter came quickly. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” He explained that it was while he was in prayer that the vision came to him. He objected, still seeing unclean animals. Then came the words that changed everything: “What God has made clean you must not call profane.” A moment of fun with words reminds us that the word profane literally means “outside of the temple.” All that was previously kept out of the temple, deemed not worthy of the temple, was now understood to be welcome.
As you might imagine, it took Peter a long time to bring his own life and actions into line with this new understanding. And as is often the case, it can take years, centuries even, for theology to catch up to an experience of the Holy Spirit. Jesus in his teaching, and now Peter, were blowing the doors off and throwing up the windows to allow the Wind, capital “W,” to blow. To the contrary, centuries of religious dogmatism has too often tried to put the doors back on and slam shut the windows. Two-thousand years later a lot of what we deal with in the Church and right in our own Diocese reveals this struggle.
Like with Peter, if I may be so bold, much of our work has been helping people claim for themselves their God-given cleanness, made in the image of God and of inherent worth, for no other reason than that they were created. Our desire is to respect the dignity of every human being for that exact reason. We hope and trust that in the power of the Spirit we are proclaiming a word of hope for many who have been told by the Church that they are profane, even an abomination, causing incalculable harm to God’s people whether it be because of race, economic status, origin of birth, sexual orientation, gender, perceived disability, or any other way we have and still do declare people as “other.”
To be an Easter person is to be daringly open to the ways in which God is breaking in with new life. In Christ we are liberated to be co-creators with God of the “new heaven and new earth” (Revelation 21:1) that God is always seeking to establish among us and through us. This is not mere optimism that just hopes for the best. It is joining the Jesus movement that sends us forth to confront the lies that perpetuate dignity-denying death, rather than embracing the way of Jesus and the Realm of God he inaugurated. The assault of manipulations of fear and anger must not take the place of our Gospel priorities. When the world attempts to seduce us with the expedience of violence or war we say no, even drawing on the historically proven reality that civil resistance is at least twice as effective as armed struggle. We choose the way of life and confront intransigence and small-thinking, not falling again into the trap from which St. Peter was set free by the risen Christ. We stand on Jesus’ words: “Love one another. As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This love is costly. It is sacrificial. It is grateful. It is how people will know that we are his disciples (see John 13:35).
If we are to boldly sing “alleluia,” we must do so with the same kind of integrity born in Jesus’ resurrection and manifested in Peter’s vision. Our “alleluia” must remain connected to the real issues of our world and the transformation of all the ways we limit God’s love, having a sometimes convenient amnesia of our baptismal vow to renounce evil in all its forms and claim the way of Jesus, the way of love. Pray, remembering that God has “made of one blood all the peoples of the earth” (BCP, p. 100, second Collect for Mission). God’s embrace is big. It is wide. It is global. It is universal (catholic). What God has made clean we must never, ever, call profane.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter: May 12, 2019
I am intrigued by the vision given us in Revelation today. It speaks of God’s people as a great multitude, “that no one can count.” It is an amazingly diverse multitude of every nation, tribe, people and language. All worship. All are robed in white. All.
Then there is that huge word, “salvation.” It belongs to the Lamb. We throw such words around in church assuming everyone knows what they mean. Here, salvation is more than personal experience. It is about restoration, renewal, re-creation, and it applies to individuals yes, but even more to all of heaven and all of earth. Who in their right mind, living on planet earth, doesn’t long for a new creation, “on earth as it is in heaven?”
And yet it does often come down to the personal, doesn’t it? Do any of you recall a song called “Tears in Heaven,” written by a musician named Eric Clapton back in 1991? The song is a memorial to his son Connor, who at four years old, fell 50 stories to his death from a New York City apartment building. Working through his pain, Clapton’s lyrics ask questions from a heart-broken, grieving father: “Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?” “Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?” “Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven?”
Listen to how Revelation responds. The multitude spoken of is not merely a nameless blob. They have identities. A few verses before today’s Gospel reading Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” They are Tabitha and Paul, Lazarus and John, Peter and Simon, yours and my mothers and fathers, our and other’s loved ones, refugees, immigrants, martyrs, people of the disassociated diocese, Connor, and all the company of heaven. Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me…they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” These are some possible responses to Mr. Clapton’s longings expressed in his song, even echoing Revelation today when he sings, “Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure; And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.”
Whatever salvation means, including the realization of a new heaven and a new earth, it is apparently not stingy or limited. We cannot control it or set boundaries on it. Again, it belongs to the Lamb and is for a great multitude no one can number.
The Jesus we discover today is the shepherd. He knows us. He calls us and our life of prayer and worship helps us to recognize his voice when he speaks. This same shepherd is the one who kept telling stories of the unlimited nature of God’s love. It is an intimate longing by God for each of us, mirrored in Clapton’s longing for his own child.
Death is powerless to dissolve God’s love of us, again Jesus saying, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.” Nothing and no one is beyond his embrace. Jesus was kind of annoying that way as he was constantly saving people nobody thought could be saved or was worth being saved. He was relentless, even dangerous, in his kingdom vision where he was always expanding borders, forever gathering the great multitude. Caroline, I hope you know that’s part of what you’re getting yourself into today by coming forward to make your vows. We promise to go with you on that journey.
Claiming Jesus’ vision as our own, do we find ourselves disturbed that not only the rhetoric, but also many of the actions of the world seems to be increasing in volume and frequency that is anti-black, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, ant-gay, anti-Semitic – language that constricts us and makes us smaller? Jesus, in his teaching about the Reign of God, over and over again holds up a possibility that is dramatically different. He teaches of a God who is like a careless farmer throwing seed about with abandon leading to miraculous growing and reckless harvesting with no sorting out of the good from the bad. He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to find just one who is lost. It raises for us the question of what kind of community we are building, what kind of faith we want others to see in us, “seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.” The multitude.
In the first century church the distinctions of the day for rights and privileges among Gentile/Jew, male/female, were done away with, destroyed in the embrace of Christ. We are called again today to gather around Jesus, not ideologies, not our fear. It might make us a bit nervous. Seemingly reckless and extravagant love got Jesus killed. What if someone gets loved or included who we think doesn’t deserve it? But this is the kind of God we have.
Let’s go back to the vision in Revelation. “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages,” that huge, without-limit throng before the throne of the Lamb, embraced by the promise of eternal union with God. The world is hungry for this kind of love and we are to be making it real even now.
So to Mr. Clapton, speaking a question to his son and perhaps, also to God, “Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven? Would you hold my hand, if I saw you in heaven?” Yes, a thousand times yes. For Jesus is risen, and “no one will snatch us out of his hand.”
Third Sunday of Easter: May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19
“Feed my sheep.” We hear these words of Jesus to Peter in a specific context. We are in the midst of our Easter celebration of the Great 50 Days. We hear them in the context, as always, of our personal life situation and whatever we carry in our hearts as we walk through the doors. We hear them in the context of the life of this magnificent Cathedral Church as you continue to fulfill your ministry as a center of prayer, worship and mission in the service of Christ’s people. We hear them in the context of those receiving the laying on of hands from the Bishop, and through the apostolic office reminding all of us of our connection to the Church of all generations, past, present and future, each of us joined to Jesus by our baptism into his death and resurrection.
“Feed my sheep” comes too in the context of today’s readings, where we discover two amazing encounters with the Risen Christ. One is where we find Paul on a business trip riding a horse to the city of Damascus. Along the way his life of violent persecution of Jesus’ followers is challenged. Knocked to the ground and blinded, he was completely undone. His entire worldview died right there and like scales falling from his eyes, he was raised to see a new possibility, a new truth. He is baptized and Christ becomes his new identity.
The other occurs on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias, back in Galilee, where the fishermen disciples return to work at their former livelihood after the events of Jesus’ execution and resurrection. They are catching nothing (I hate when that happens), only to come into an amazing abundance of fish when the Risen Jesus shows up and Peter himself, after denying Jesus 3 times during Jesus’ trial, is beautifully restored to the community, healed and forgiven by a 3-time call to love.
Both events speak to God’s power to change lives, to redirect them for God’s purposes on the earth and yes, even our lives, which occasionally get off-track. Yet be aware that what we see in Paul and Peter is not a mere realignment of thoughts and emotions. This is about death to life. This is about liberation. It is about an entire new identity where “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Notice too that the life-changing events were not only for the benefit of the individuals receiving the gift. Even more it is to bear witness to the work of God for the sake of others, bringing new life into their midst, seeing even in the present moment the new creation, the new heaven and new earth God seeks to make real in his vision of love that ushers in justice, peace and dignity for all people. That’s the business of “feeding sheep.”
Let me tell you of a disciple not unlike Paul or Peter, who in her own life, witnesses to the life of the Risen Christ. Her name is Allouise Story, who does not allow fear or even the status quo define her or her world. Allouise is elderly, widowed, and the only occupant of a magnificent, dazzling white house in the midst of an urban ghetto. Her home has polished oak moldings, furniture covered with plastic – neat and tidy. She’s thought about moving away.
Outside, across the alley, is Doc’s Liquor Store. Patrons are found slouched against tree trunks and get into no-good. This infuriates Allouise. In her house are two pianos and an organ that she plays every day and when the weather is nice, she has the windows open so that music can escape to fill the neighborhood with an alternative sound, a feast of the ears. Outside she sees the children of the street and worries for their future.
She, if anyone, has the right to panic and weep. She has watched the rotting of the neighborhood. But she maintains that house as a sheer act of the will to show that not everything or everyone must succumb to decay or leave the city in order to survive. Her very presence is a symbol of life despite the odds. Ordinarily one might see an elderly woman in the city and think of her as powerless, but not Allouise. She is full of power.
It is said she prays the Lord’s Prayer so clearly and firmly that when she says “Amen” it makes people jump. She fights for good education and good teachers. She maintains the struggle with signs of defeat all around: just like in the Bible events today of no catch of fish, betrayals, acts of violence against people; but, she never descends into self-pity. Allouise sings the spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” so powerfully that someone said, “No one should be able to sing it like that.”
When asked why she hasn’t followed up on her plans to move, Allouise responds, “I don’t see it the same anymore. The people outside my windows aren’t my enemies. Gosh, they’re not even my project. They’re God’s beloved children. The Lord says ‘feed my sheep.’ I am his, and this is how he has called me to do it.” Plans change. Paul was on a horse to Damascus. His plans changed. Peter and the apostles were looking to return to what they knew, fishing. Plans changed. Three years ago I thought I was retiring. Again, plans changed. Saying one’s prayer can be dangerous – plans can change if we’re listening. We are all being prepared, just as all of you coming forward are, to be ever more clear of the call to love by feeding the sheep Jesus gives us. Allouise, you, me, we are called to live this truth, to be this truth.
It has been said that the great Easter truth is not so much that we are to live newly after death, but that we are to be new here and now by the power of the Resurrection (Philips Brooks, 1893). And Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
The Second Sunday of Easter: April 28, 2019
Today in Acts we read, “And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” As witnesses we proclaim Christ is risen, exalted by God as “Leader and Savior,” and today we have the great joy of renewing this truth through Barbara and Bonny as they reaffirm their faith.
How might Thomas inform our witness as he is presented to us in today’s Gospel? He refused to believe the testimony of anyone else, even that of his closest friends. Then Jesus appeared to him and Thomas was challenged by Jesus’ invitation to touch the wounds still visible in his resurrected body. Thomas yielded with perhaps one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire New Testament: “My Lord and my God!”
But, not so fast. Let’s go back to those wounds. What do we make of the marks of crucifixion on the resurrected body of Jesus? The Gospel writer is seeking to portray the Jesus in the closed up house as the same Jesus who was crucified. That part is clear. I think it’s more than that, however.
One of the glad burdens we are to bear, along with the whole Church, is the one of prayer, interceding for the needs of God’s people locally and around the world. Right now my intercessions, perhaps yours too, are heavy with great need and longing expressed by many. There are a number of folks I am holding before God’s mercy who are struggling with varying stages of cancer. I have been holding in prayer a mother whose son went missing for several weeks. I hold before God places of war and conflict, our parishes and our sad divisions in the Church, suffering children in Myanmar, hopes of justice for refugees fleeing the violence of their countries, the unending attacks on innocent people in the name of religion as in the latest horror in Sri Lanka, and just yesterday in California a killing out of anti-Semitic hatred. You have your list.
These and all so many others you can name are the wounds of the world. Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to touch the wounds on his body is an invitation to stare straight into the woundedness of the world through his wounds. We are not only to enter the world’s pain through our prayer, as important as that is, but Jesus invites us to touch the places of pain, to go where the pain is and confront it, sit with it, cry with it, and bring Christ’s breath of peace, “Shalom,” by our very presence. We do this because the Spirit has breathed on us and we are witnesses.
Today’s Gospel teaches us that it is in solidarity with the world at the margins that we come to the opportunity to believe. We are called to faithfulness not merely when everything is perceived to be okay, but at the place of deepest hurt and longing. There, in Christ’s wounds is the brokenness of the world. We are to be treating the most vulnerable of our world as we would treat Christ himself, not causing harm to those Jesus calls the least of these.
Perhaps Thomas’ proclamation of “My Lord and my God” is not only a statement of faithfulness. Maybe it is also a plea, a crying out of hope against hope that in the midst of the wounds of the world all around us that somehow, even there, we can meet God. The Gospel does indeed want us to understand clearly that the One risen is also the innocent One who was executed. We are being invited to adore him who made himself supremely vulnerable in bearing the brokenness, the sin, of the world. Looking at Jesus, we see the worst that humanity can dish out, and yet believe.
Thomas then is a bridge, a bridge for all future believers, us, who may find it difficult to make the leap from death into resurrection territory. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” The account gives us mistaken turnings, confused demands and puzzled longings. Such is our experience of life. The struggle of faith is not a smooth, level road to perfection. Misunderstanding and a bumpy ride are par for the course. Thomas represents us in our humanity and the Gospel hopes we will identify with him.
And look how Jesus responds. The first thing he does for his companions locked in that room, holed up in death and doom: death by fear; death by guilt; death by alienation; is offer them empowerment and invitation – unconditional, open arms, lavish love, welcoming us to new life and new possibilities.
Rather than savoring alienation, Jesus responds with complete acceptance. Note that he comes into the room with the traditional Jewish formal greeting, “Shalom Aleichem,” “Peace be with you,” shalom not being merely the absence of conflict, but well-being, wholeness, completeness, that encourages one to give back and create just relationships.
Christian community is rooted in that love offered in the upper room that night as it continues to show up in seemingly impossible situations. Alienation is ended. Released from cowering behind locked doors, we are empowered to go forth and be servants of Jesus. We are now set free from all of our locked rooms, whatever they might be, to be God’s person in God’s world, witnesses of the One raised up. Go ahead. Go into the world and face its brokenness with resurrection hope. He’s already there, waiting to receive you with a word of “Shalom,” “Peace be with you.”
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.