Coming Full Circle – July 1, 2018

July 1, 2018

So, the woman who's hemorrhaging for 12 years, right in the midst of the story, right in the midst of this story about Jairus, just kind of inserted in there. Every now and then you get these kind of odd pieces that just kind of are the insert. It starts off and we're thinking we're hearing about Jairus. Then, there's this woman. Then, on any occasion we could pray, pay attention and teach about either one of these stories but they're right here together. So, it makes me wonder if they're together, maybe there's something we need to be talking about and thinking about in combination.

What do these two stories teach us together because if we were just to look at the Jairus story, then we could talk about parents' love or if we talk about the woman who's hemorrhaging, we can talk about the power of touch. This is bigger than that because they're together. So, I think that the common thread for us is about wholeness, about bringing us back into a wholeness and what that looks like for you and me. What does that look like for you and me? Anthony Higgs has a quote and he says, "When greed replaces God then we shall know that man has come full circle, back to where his origins in life have stemmed from. When greed replaces God." See, the whole of the story of scripture is about God trying to be in relationship with us and us, we the people of humanity, we're the greedy ones.

We're the ones who are constantly breaking that relationship. God's reaching out, we're tucking away. What do I mean by that? Think about the creation story. At the beginning of creation, the first five days, God's creating and creating and creating, he's separating the skies from the earth, he's separating the water from the land. He's making birds and animals and trees and flowers and after every day of creation, for the first five days, he says what upon reflection? This is good. Then, after the sixth day, he makes humanity and he says this is very good. So, that's pretty cool.

Think about that, there are some great things that have been created over time, God could have stopped with an elephant or a zebra or a magnolia tree or a tea olive tree, my favorite of all trees and smells. We used to have a tea olive that sat right outside of the cathedral in Charleston and this time of year I would always snip off a piece of it and I would keep it in the car because it has this great smell and I would put it in the car and I would drive home and then when I got into the car the next morning, my car smelled like tea olive, it was the best. It was one of those great creation moments. God could have stopped there and it would have been perfectly fine but no, God kept going.

God created a dog, created the manatee but we know the rest of the story. We don't even need Paul Harvey. The rest of the story is we messed up, Adam and Eve messed up. Their sons messed up, their siblings fight and messed up. Noah why? Because people mess up. God even got to the point in Genesis 9 and 10 to go, "You know what? We need to make a difference here. I need to help them know that I'm trying to be in relationship." So, God puts this bow in the sky so that we can know that God is in relationship. Nowadays, we look at a bow in the sky, we take an Instagram of it, we think, "Oh, how pretty."

We forgot the relationship of what it means, that God is seeking us out to be in union, to be in wholeness with us and we can keep going. What happened with Abraham and Izaak and Jacob? Oh Jacob? Jacob's been messing up big time. He stole his brother's birthright. He stole his brother's wife, had to run away so that his wife didn't get killed. Went to sleep on a rock and was selfish enough to say, "If God will bring me back to this space, then you'll be my God." That's pretty selfish, pretty abusive of power. There's a college chaplain I had in the final days to help the youth kind of take away nice sentences. Sometimes I would resort to my days when I was a youth counselor or otherwise but it was the one that kind of struck me was the word sin, S-I-N. The middle of that word has this profound letter, I.

Great thing about it is if you take I out of the middle you get nothing, literally, just like sn. You take I out of the middle of sin you have nothing. When we are no longer focusing on ourselves, when we don't put ourselves in the middle. When we are not greedy, when we do not try to be like God i.e. what we saw with Adam and Eve, when we don't try to be like God, we have the potential of being in a relationship with God but when we think that we are better than God, when we are selfish enough to put ourselves in the center, we break covenant.

Think about your personal relationships with your spouse, with your child, with your best friend, the times that you have the most difficulty, the time I have the most difficulty is when I think I'm right, right? If I think I am right I don't give myself the ability to listen to the other. When I don't listen to the other I break relationship. I break covenant. In our prayers, are we listening to God or are we talking at God? Do we spend all of our time telling God what we want? Are we spending our time during that wonderful 30 days before Christmas, pulling into a parking lot and saying, "god, please get me a parking space?" Or during the summer months, "Oh God, if I could just make this put."

Then, when I make the put, do I remember to thank God for it?  No, we tend to put yourselves in a position of control. We want to be in control. Then we come back to today's stories, the story of Jairus and the story of this woman that hemorrhaged for 12 years. Let's spend a moment with her for a second. Think about it, she's been hemorrhaging for 12 years. The story tells us that she was so out of wit on this, that she had been to see every doctor possible. She was outside of her body. She had nothing left. By this point she had been to her specialist, she had gone through everybody that the HMO could have given her. She's also gone and talked to acupuncture people. She's tried the right vitamins. She's tried everything she can possibly try.

She's even gone organic and yet she can't get fixed. That's not the worst of it all. In her community, because she's hemorrhaging, it means that she's no longer a part of her community. Because she is hemorrhaging, she is not allowed to have a relationship with her husband. She is not allowed to touch her children. She is not allowed to go into the synagogue. She is not allowed to be a part of anything that she thinks is whole. She wants to be whole again. It's not just about making her hemorrhage stop. That's a side note here. The big piece is that she wants to be whole again.

Then, there's Jairus. Jairus is the leader of the synagogue. Let's really pay attention for a moment, [inaudible 00:17:58] synagogue and our relationship to Jesus? First of all, there's this one guy in John Chapter Three, Nicodemus who has to come and see Jesus at night because he doesn't want people to know that he's talking to him. He's a member of the same community. He goes to Jesus at night so that nobody will know but here's Jairus, the leader of the synagogue whose daughter is dying. There is no other recourse for him. He's going to do everything in his power to fix this. I'm a parent. I know that if my child is at a point of death, I'm going to do everything that I can, everything, even if it means, like Jairus, putting myself outside of relationship with the community in which I exist.

Because for Jairus to go to see Jesus, the person who they are persecuting, the person who they are challenging, this upstart young man, is putting himself at odds with everything that he believes and everybody that he hangs out with. That's how much he cared about trying to save his daughter. So, now we've set the stage. They want wholeness. He wants to be whole. He needs his daughter to be well. This man who, if he went to go see Jesus, knew that he would be giving up everything and our story says that he stood in front of Jesus face to face. The woman, the hemorrhaging woman, what does she do? She crawls in from the back. She comes in, she can't even be seen. She doesn't even want Jesus to know it happened but she believes enough that if she just touches the hem of his coat that she will be made whole.

The moment she touches his hem, she feels the power, Jesus feels the power. She scoots away. Jesus says, "Who done it? Who did it? Who is it?" As a sideswipe, "You've got to be kidding me? All of these people around and you're worried about somebody touching you? There's people bumping into you all over the place." That's not what we're talking about. He's talking about somebody who had taken power. The only way that that power would have happened is through faith and belief because you know why? Because he didn't ask her about reciting a creed. He didn't put her through the Commission on Ministry trials and tribulations, hoops and ... No, he knew that she felt what she needed to feel.

He sent her on in peace and wholeness. Jairus was walking and people were laughing at him. People were laughing and scolding Jairus saying, "You don't need to bother him." Then, when he gets to the home, people were laughing at Jesus and kicks him out of the house. So, it's the father, the mother, Peter, James and John. They're the ones who let in with this 12 year old, takes her by the hand, she gets up and she walks. Great stories but what does that have to do with you and me? I think it has to do a lot with you and me. Saint Augustine says, "Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you." We are the Jairus'. We are the women.

We are the ones who need God in our lives. We are the ones who are returning back to God for wholeness, for strength and for clarity but the good thing is, is that we have the examples of people who were so far removed from being accessible to Jesus, people who didn't think they were worthy to come before Jesus. One came up face to face but one had to tuck in from behind. It doesn't matter how you come to God. That's what the story is reminding us of. It doesn't matter how you come to God, on your knees or face to face, angry, upset or crying and tearful. God is there waiting to hear from you.

Remember the bow in the sky? That's a reminder that God is waiting for you, not God is seeking us out. God is there. What we have to do is to work if we know we want to be in relationship with God. Here's a final point, quick [inaudible 00:23:33]. When we are in relationship with each other, what do we do? When we know that we love one another, what's the first thing that we do? When we can recognize love from one another we listen for somebody else's pain, we listen to their stories, we want to know everything about them. That's when we make a shift, when you want to know everything about the person who's sitting across from you.

Why is that any different than our relationship with God? Why aren't we listening to God? What do we do? We give off a litany of things that we expect God to do for us i.e. the parking lot, putting for golf. Sometimes we just need to be willing to listen, hear what God has to say and after listening, we discern what God was calling us to do because if we only try to fix our problems, we're going to be like the woman 12 years down the road, still not much going on but if we're listening and paying attention and discerning what God is calling us into, it might make the difference.

Once we've discerned it, we try it on. We try on what God is asking us to do. We reflect on its abilities. We reflect on what has happened and if it doesn't work, we start all over again and we try and we listen a little bit more. It's not a hard formula. It's the same formula we do with the people that we love, the people we care for. God loves us and cares for us and he's asked us to be in a relationship. So, might we try and listen to God just a little bit more? Sometimes that might mean instead of going through our litany of prayers, it might mean just being still and being quiet, as my wife would say just shutting up.

I want to leave you with this, grace is something you can never get, nor earn, nor conjure. It can only be given. A good sleep is grace, I'm sure a good dream is. The smell of rain is grace, the grace of God means something right here is your life. You might never have been but you are because the party wouldn't have been complete without you. Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen but don't be afraid for God is with you. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. God says to you and me, "I love you." There's only one catch, I think that concludes, like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you reach out and take it. Amen. 

Coming Full Circle (Children’s Sermon) – July 1, 2018

July 1, 2018

I invite you to come and sit with me here in the front. 

Let's sit on the floor. How are you? I'm glad you're here. Good to see you, how are you? You going to join us? Good. So, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to ask you to close your eyes real quick and I'm going to give you something and I'll put it into your hands and I want you to just kind of, to feel it. Don't look. Can you do it without peeking? You can have a look at it in a minute and I promise you it's not going to hurt you, okay? Close your eyes, close your eyes. Do you feel that? Here you go.

Okay, so, now, feel it with your eyes closed, can you feel something that's on that piece of material? Is there a shape that's attached to it? Feel it, touch it, run your hand over it. What do you feel? Don't look. What do you feel? Do you feel a shape? First off, what is the shape of the thing that's in your hands? Is it a circle? Is it a diamond? Is it a stop sign or is it a square? You're all very talkative.  Is it a square?

A circle.

It's a circle or a square?  Square. It's a square, yes, thank you. Now, what do you feel on that square? What type of material is it? Is it really rough or is it soft?

Soft.

Soft. Is there some ...

[inaudible 00:02:28]

I'm sorry? What do you feel on it?

That is soft.

Soft, yes, it's soft. What else do you feel on it? Is there something that's bumpy on it or is it all smooth?

Bumpy.

Bumpy, if you run your hand along the thing that's bumpy, what do you feel? What is it?

[inaudible 00:02:50].

It's the God sign. It's a cross.  It's a perfect thing.it's the God sign. It's a cross. So, thank you. May I have those back for a second? Now, I'm going to show them to all the adults that are in the back so they can see our show and tell.  Thank you. So, what I have before you, some of you may know about this but this is what? Ladies from the church, what is this?  It is in the shape of a potholder but it actually serves a different purpose. It's a prayer [inaudible 00:03:36] a pocket shawl and who created them?  The ladies of the church.  Good prayer group; they made these prayer shawls.

These are meant, they're soft and you can hold them. You can put them in your hands and play with them and they can give you comfort because if it was sharp and spiky would it feel good?  Would it feel good if it was sharp and spiky or cold and wet? Let's keep that one good [inaudible 00:04:20] unless it's a really hot thing but a blanket, it's just like a little pocket blanket, right. Your church has made these blankets to give to people who are sick, to people who need to feel comfort. When you were a little baby, did you have a baby blanket? Yeah, those were pretty cool. I'll tell you, my sons, if we did not have a baby blanket with us when we went on a trip, they would fuss.

They made sure that we knew that we had to have that baby blanket because it gave them comfort, it gave them solace. It made them feel as if they belonged. These prayer shawls are meant to do the same thing. There's a story today in the Gospel about a woman who was sick. She couldn't get well. She kept going to the doctor and the doctors couldn't make her well but she knew that if she would but touch the helm, that is this part, the helm of Jesus' outfit that she would be made well and she touched his dress, his outfit and she was made well.

There's something wonderful about the touch that happened. When she touched that part of Jesus' outfit, he felt [inaudible 00:05:44] her, she got power from him and she knew that she was well. What does that teach you and me? It teaches us that, as a community, as a group of people together, as a church, when we pray for one another, when we give time to each other and when we care for each other, wonderful things can happen. We're in the midst right now, we're doing something as a church, for 100 days we're praying. We're praying for people who are sick and they have these shawls. They can hold on to them when they're not feeling well but do you know what also makes them feel well? Is knowing that people are praying for them because when we pray for each other it's like we're putting a blanket upon them.

So, any questions? So, what are you going to do? Are you going to pray for people or are you going to wait until they pray for you? You're going to pray for people. Right. Yeah, you going to do that too?

My tummy hurts.

Your tummy hurts?

Yeah [crosstalk 00:06:50].

Can you hold onto that. There you go. Now your tummy's going to feel better. If it doesn't, you let me know, okay?

Okay.

Great, thank you. Thanks for playing along. Do you want to stay up here or do you want to go back downstairs? You can stay up here if you want to?

They're not going to ...

They're not going to stay? Okay. [crosstalk 00:07:16] Thank you everyone. Do you want to take it with you until your tummy feels better?

Yeah.

You can keep it with you until your tummy feels better. Thank you. His tummy must feel better. Okay, you can come back.

What Does Trust In God Look Like? – June 24, 2018

June 24, 2018

Five weeks ago on Tuesday, May 15, as I began to settle in on the plane, awaiting takeoff from San Francisco Airport, I learned that our flight back home to JFK in NYC was going to be delayed for 3-hours. Instead of getting home at 8 or 9 pm, I probably wouldn’t be in bed till after midnight. Just about everyone on that very full flight was annoyed. We got off the plane and then re-embarked about 3-hours later. Couldn’t the big jet have flown through or around the thunderstorm? There were a couple small trees and big limbs down in my yard when I finally got home, so I could see that that there must have been some wind. It wasn’t till later, when a neighbor from across the street of our new home in Brookfield called, did I have any inkling how severe a storm that Jet Blue had wisely avoided. Ours was one of the very few homes on our new street that did not have a tree on our roof. We were very fortunate, she told us, she walked all the way around our yard and noticed no damage. She was not so lucky. A big tree was partially lying in her bedroom. Four other large trees had fallen, destroying one of her cars, knocking off the chimney, her flagpole and light, not to mention her shade and privacy. Power lines were down everywhere; power was finally restored after 10 days. Docks and boats were strewn all across Candlewood Lake and trees knocked down everywhere as a macro burst from the storm devastated a 9 by 7 mile area of land. As the thunderstorm continued its SE path tornadoes broke out in Southbury, Oxford, and Hamden. It was quite a storm.

How scary it must have been to be in the midst of that storm. How scary it must have been for Jesus’ disciples to be in that boat with him, crossing to the other side of the lake as he had told them, as the waves crashed over their bow and threatened to swamp them. Jesus was an amazing prophet, and preacher, and healer. They would follow him anywhere. But they didn’t take any comfort in seeing him still sleeping on some waterlogged cushions in the stern of the boat. One of them shook Jesus awake: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing!” Then Jesus rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Next Jesus rebuked his disciples. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Who is this, they wondered, that even the wind and the sea obey him.

A verse from an old song from the 1960’s by a group of Roman Catholic Nuns, the Medical Mission Singers, Joy is Like the Rain, captures the challenge of trusting God in the midst of the storms that buffet us.

I saw Christ in wind and thunder,
joy is tried by storm
Christ asleep within my boat,
whipped by wind, yet still afloat
Joy is tried by storm

Rarely, but sometimes, God or fate intervenes to protect us from some grave harm. Maybe it happens a lot more than we realize. We should certainly be grateful for those many blessings when inexplicably we’ve escaped harm. But sometimes, all too often, the storm rages all around us. We look for help and God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. He might as well be asleep in the boat. “Where are you God? Can’t you see I’m in trouble here; I need your help! Save me from this storm.”

The question this passage seems to be asking us is the question Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” How do we trust God in the midst of life’s storms and challenges? Of course, we want God to protect us from harm, to rescue us, to bring us safely through. But sometimes trust in God means something deeper. Even when Jesus appears to be sleeping, even when we don’t see any action on God’s part to help us, maybe there’s still a reason to trust.

We can trust Jesus because of who he is. He has taken our part. He is God come down from heaven to share our human life. He has walked in our shoes. He shared our human life, our human condition, our pain and our death, our sin and brokenness, so that breaking the power of sin and death we might rise to new life with him. Even when we don’t see Jesus actively doing something on our behalf, we can trust his life and grace for us. We have reason to trust.

We can trust in Jesus’ presence. Even if we walk through great trials, even if the wind buffets our boat and it is filling up with water, even if we are going through the worst crisis we have ever faced, we know that Jesus is with us. He abides with us and invites us to abide in him. Sometimes he calms the storm and sometimes he calms his child and lets the storm rage. Knowing that Jesus loves us, forgives us, strengthens us, teaches us, nourishes us and lives within us: helps us get through anything.

Faith often prepares us to be able to deal with the many challenges that life throws at us. How many remember the movie The Karate Kid? The Karate Kid is about a teenager who feels alone and unprotected in the hostile environment of his school and community. He is scared — unable to defend himself against the hoodlums of his neighborhood. He is afraid. It happens that the lad — whose name is Daniel — meets an old man, Mr. Miyagi, who has a black belt in karate — and the old man agrees that he will teach him what he knows so that he can protect himself. On the first day of his lessons the old man asks Daniel to wax and polish several old cars that he owns — wax on — wax off. All day the lad labors to follow these instructions: wax on — wax off. On the second day the old man asks the boy to paint his fence — paint up — paint down. Again it takes all day.
On the third day the old man asks him to sand the wooden floor of his verandah in a circular fashion, and again it takes all day. At the end of the third day the boy is very angry — “I’ve done all this work for you,” he says, “and you still haven’t taught me anything.” At this point the master tells Daniel to stand in front of him and do the motion for wax on — wax off — and lo — as he does this — the master makes to hit him — and his blows are deflected by the boy’s arms. The boy’s work for Mr. Miyagi — his obedience, his trust — has made him ready for his first lesson in how to face danger; it has prepared him for the lessons, and the dangers, to follow. (Homiletics Online, “Uncommon Scents, Mark 4:35-41, 6/25/06) So it is to follow faithfully, growing in Christ’s love, learning to follow him in all things, prepares us for the challenges and difficulties that life throws at us.

Sometimes trusting Jesus means making changes in our lives. A husband and wife were watching TV one night in their living room. Perhaps related to a show they had just watched the husband shared a concern that he wanted his wife to remember as an advanced medical directive. “Just so you know,” he told her “I never want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on some machine and fluids from a bottle. If that ever happens, just pull the plug.” His wife got up, unplugged the TV and threw out all of his beer. (Homiletics Online, same article) Sometimes trusting God means making changes in our lives. How might we be depending on unhealthy ways of behaving, or eating or living that trust in God is challenging us to change?

I’ve lived through a lot of storms. And I know sometimes they can leave an ungodly mess. I’ve cleaned out flooded basements and helped rehab houses where the walls had to be stripped down to the studs. I’ve seen homes completely destroyed, with only the foundation remaining of what once had been a stately home. Trust in God sometimes means living through the devastation and cleaning up afterwards. Trust in God means helping my neighbor who is trying to overcome the damage done by the storm.

The storms that blow through our lives can certainly wreck havoc. But they can’t take away our hope. They can’t take away what is most important: our love, our faith, our hope and trust in God. It’s hard seeing our new neighbors in Brookfield having to clean up and do repairs after so much wind damage and trees down everywhere. The sound of chain saws and wood chippers is a daily constant. Still, houses can be repaired, trees cut up and burned as firewood. Trust in a power greater than ourselves gives us the resilience and courage to rebuild. The support of neighbors to come to one another’s aid in the midst of disaster encourages us. The trust of God in a hope that is greater and more unshakable than any tree no matter how deeply rooted, is what matters most. “Why are you afraid?” Jesus who has been in the boat with us all along asks: “Have you still no faith?”

Radical Racism – June 17, 2018

June 17, 2018

Movies geared primarily toward children often are about secrets and an insider/outsider duality. For instance, we see these in the Harry Potter movies about a boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who becomes a student at Hogwarts, a training-school for wizards. Only certain people can attend Hogwarts. Most of us are “muggles,” non-magical people, who are not to know of the school or of the magical world in general. Clearly, in these movies, there are secret truths and an insider/outsider status, just as in the Markan text.

In a different way, Crash (2005; dir. Paul Haggis), which is definitely not for children, also presents secret, or at least unseen, truth and an insider/outsider duality. This complex and engrossing film tells the story of several characters living in Los Angeles whose lives crash into each other in various ways. All of the main characters are both victims of and perpetrators of racism. White people discriminate against black people, black people discriminate against Asian people, white and Middle Eastern people discriminate against Mexican people, on and on.

For example, a white cop played by Matt Dillon pulls a black couple over for a minor violation. He demands that the man played by Terrence Dashon Howard and the woman played by Thandie Newton get out of the car. He has them frisked for no good reason. When he frisks the woman, he molests her while her husband looks on helplessly. The movie is full of such racist moments although not all are as egregious. Some are as simple as a slur, but all jab at us viewers, challenging us to pay closer attention to how we talk to and act toward each other.

Crash does not only critique our society’s racism; it also shows people transcending it. For example, later in the movie, the same white cop finds a woman trapped in a car that is about to explode, the same woman he molested. She demands that someone else help her, but no one else is available. He persuades her to let him rescue her. The white cop does all he can, risking his own life, to pull the black woman out of the car to safety just before it explodes.

A truth in the movie is that, despite our various differences, we people, regardless of race, are all far more than stereotypes. This truth is not seen by the racist characters, although many of them manage to learn a small piece of this truth through their collisions with each other.

                  Some time ago in the New Yorker magazine[1], Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article called "The Tipping Point." Gladwell describes a substantial drop in the crime rate in New York City, and an even more dramatic drop in the devastated area of Brooklyn North. Those who have studied this phenomenon have found the most helpful model to be that of the epidemic. It takes only a small increase in the number of infected people to spread a disease in dramatic numbers. When a certain "tipping-point" has been reached, the numbers spiral exponentially.   In the same way, small changes in a community may lead to a similar "tipping-point," at which the crime rate either decreases (hopefully) or increases with unpredictable speed.

                  When our community or our Nation acts in a way to subjugate and create an insider/outsider duality resulting in children being separated from their parents, leading to a similar "tipping-point,” we must take note. And when the excuse is certified by quoting scripture, I am going to take note. The A.G. Jeff Sessions, quoted Romans 13 as the rationale behind treating the civil code as a criminal one, the church has an obligation to see the facts straight.                             I don’t preach politics, I teach bible.

Mr. Sessions sited Romans 13.1-2 which reads,

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement.

Mr Sessions, invoked the Bible to defend the Trump administration's immigration policies, including separating families who illegally cross the border into the U.S.: “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Yes it says that. But a mere 6 verses later, we get a broader panoramic view into Paul’s thinking.

But read the rest of the chapter where it says, “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”

How, if that same Bible, same book, same chapter says “Love does no harm to a neighbor,” are our nations actions acts of neighborliness? How is separating a child from his/her parents an act of love?

When Scripture is used to do harm to another, we run the chance of creating a systemic “tipping point.” And with any tipping point, it could go either way… and in this case, affirming the radicalization of social racism OR we tip it in favor of calling out for a greater act- one of Love, the truer fulfillment of the Law.

And indeed, Mr. Sessions attempt at Bible study landed with a damp, wet sound among religious leaders. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Sarah Smith reported, numerous Christians objected to Sessions’ “misuse of Scripture.” As one Southern Baptist pastor, Wes Faulk, told the paper, “Any government that uses Romans 13 to silence ethical objections has already realized it does not stand on Scriptural or moral high grounds.”

Let me be clear, today’s Gospel remind us that while God is unseen and not always visible in the forces of the unfolding of human history, God is still at work around us. When faced with racism in our lives we cannot easily realize how God’s presence and God’s action are real, it seems beyond our power to measure how close God’s realm may be. The lifelong task of Christians and of Christian communities is to allow Christ to form in us the trust that our beginning, middle, and endings are always in God’s hands - to take root in how we treat others in our lives.

This charitable way of living, this Christian love, does not originate with us. It starts with God.

  • It was to share the divine love that the Creator launched the cosmos and formed the human race.
  • It was love that brought heaven to earth in the person of Jesus the Christ, and it was love that led him to accept the cross, and it was love that burst open his tomb on the first Easter Day.
  • And this divine love came to reside among his first disciples. It still dwells in human hearts and manifests itself in a myriad of gifts, all of them grace at work in the world, the action of the Holy Spirit.

For the God we Christians serve is not the creature of anybody’s culture, but a God sovereign in love and action, whose gospel judges and changes every culture, and whose reign will remain forever.

This divine love thus should be the one true cause of our lives. It is the source of any love we experience which is worthy of the name. And our calling as Christian people is to serve as nothing less than the agents of this love.

Here we have it, my friends: the great struggle, worthy of all our best efforts. To serve as agents of God’s love is what we have been put here to do

Opportunities for this appear to us in life’s ordinary transactions as we move among the people we know. But our opportunities to love also extend beyond the horizon of our sight. We can strive for God’s peace to extend among people we barely know, even people we will never meet here on earth. We can work for right relationships to prevail among disparate groups and peoples in the sphere of politics, in the sphere of economics. Yes, divine love wants to work through us to establish everywhere that justice and peace—that network of right relationships which the Bible calls shalom.

The Truth is there are forces in progress which we cannot see or measure until their yield produces an almost explosive effect. Through the lens of Christian faith, we believe that God is similarly at work.

So, for the time being, we look at the world around us, and attempt to do our part. As a Parent, as a father, I’m mindful of all those children- children of my neighbor- who are in distress this day; therefor I will seek to find a way to bring their suffering to an end. I’m looking not just at today but looking with hope when we transcend the hatred and societal racism that holds us captive, towards a better world yet to be discovered.

[1] New Yorker magazine June 3, 1996

Don’t Bind The Holy Spirit – June 10, 2018

June 10, 2018

There are three very different groups identified in today’s Gospel passage from Mark. First there were the crowds. The crowds were hungry for Jesus’ ministry. There were the sick in need of healing, people who were possessed of unclean spirits who needed evil driven out of them, sinners in need of forgiveness, lepers who needed to be cleansed, tax collectors, prostitutes and other unacceptable people in society who wanted to be restored to wholeness, and lots of people eager for Jesus’ teaching. There were also his chosen followers, the disciples. The crowds followed him from place to place. There were often so many of them that Jesus had to get in a boat in order to separate himself enough from the crowd that he could speak to them. Mark tells us that there were so many people in that crowd vying for Jesus’ attention that sometimes he and his disciples couldn’t even eat.

The next group was Jesus’ family, his biological mother and brothers. They had gathered because they were worried about Jesus. They felt they needed to intervene and take him out of this madhouse of healing and ministry. It was clearly overwhelming and they feared for Jesus’ welfare.

Finally, there were the religious establishment who had come down from Jerusalem, because they heard of Jesus’ amazing ministry and growing popularity. They disapproved. They were jealous of Jesus’ popularity and suspicious of his work. He’s crazy, they said. “He’s only able to cast out demons because he is in league with them himself!”

Mark encapsulates Jesus’ ministry in this passage, showing him in a house ministering to the crowds gathered around him. Presumably there were so many people in the house that neither his own family members or the religious establishment from Jerusalem could get inside. Outside the house both Jesus’ own family and the religious establishment accuse Jesus of being crazy.

Jesus responded by telling two related parables. The religious establishment has accused him of casting out Satan by being in league with Satan. Jesus told them that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. If Jesus cast out Satan by Satan, then Satan’s rule was done for. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?! He went on to say that no one can plunder a strong man without first tying up the strong man. Then his house can be plundered. Jesus’ power to cast out demons, he implied, was because he had power over Satan.

When Jesus’ family tried to intervene, Jesus spoke to the crowd sitting all around him and asked: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Looking at the needy crowd, Jesus says, “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Mark gives us a picture of Jesus’ ministry with the needy crowds desperate for his words and healing and power, sandwiched in-between on the one hand, Jesus’ own immediate family and on the other hand the religious establishment of the day, who were both critical of him. I would suggest that today we have an inverse picture of Jesus’ ministry. The religious establishment – that’s us, who claim to be Jesus’ family, his Body, the Church – are in the house of God and we have the Jesus market as it were cornered for ourselves. The crowds are still out there, in the world, in our neighborhoods, all around us in this city, at work, at school and in social media. The crowds are as needy as ever: for healing, for direction, for cleansing, for forgiveness, for justice, for the power of evil to be confronted and driven out, for words of wisdom and for the transforming power of love. But instead of being gathered around Jesus hungry for his words and power and the good news of God’s Kingdom, the crowds are insulated from hearing and hungering for the good news because Jesus’ own followers block the message. The houses we worship in today are no longer porous and open to the hungers and needs of the world. Somehow the living connection that allowed Jesus to touch the people of his day is not getting through these thick stone walls.

Instead of calling Jesus crazy, the craziness of his message is domesticated by his Church. Instead of proclaiming the upside down message of the Kingdom of God: where giving is more important than getting, where service of others is the true currency of greatness, where love breaks through the power of death, where all people are welcomed as God’s beloved children, where forgiveness triumphs over judgement, where it is in dying to self and greed and control that we are born to true and eternal life (instead of proclaiming that upside down message of the Kingdom of God), we are all too often co-opted by the values of the world as it is.

Instead of Jesus binding Satan we are in danger of having bound the Holy Spirit of God. We deny the power of God. We don’t trust God’s wild, creative and unimaginable power. We domesticate God’s Spirit prescribing where and when God’s Spirit channels into our life in prescribed rites and music and established sacraments. We have not fed the fire of the Holy Spirit of God that is within us. We have not nurtured our own hunger to grow in Christ, to deepen our relationship with the living God, to study and learn God’s Word. We have not grown in service to others. We are all too often observers rather than participants in God’s mission. There are so many ways we bind the power of the Holy Spirit to move with freedom and power and urgency in our midst, in our lives, and through us to a hungry world. Could that be the sin against the Holy Spirit?

When we compare the picture of Jesus’ ministry with where we are as a Church today it should be clear that something is seriously out of whack. No one is calling us crazy or out of our minds because we preach such a radical message or contradict the powers of this world. No one is calling us crazy because we connect so deeply with the poor and dispossessed. No one is calling us crazy because we believe so strongly in a message of radical love and welcome. No one is intervening because we spend so much time of our time and energy in ministering to others. People are not beating down our doors to get to Jesus. No one is accusing us of beating down Satan by the power of Satan. What’s wrong? How can we as the Church connect with the hungers and needs of the world? I wish it were clear. I wish there were easy answers and a clear way forward. So many of us are struggling to find that way.

The good news in the Gospel lesson is when Jesus turns to the crowds and says, “here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” When we recognize ourselves as part of that diverse crowd of rif raf and sinners and people in desperate need for the power and the healing and the cleansing and the new birth Jesus has to offer. When we recognize ourselves as part of that great diversity of humanity that Jesus welcomes as his intimate, beloved family. When we see ourselves not as religious establishment, not as privileged members of Jesus’ biological family, but rather as undeserving outsiders that Jesus has welcomed in. When our own lives are turned around by grace. When the power of the Holy Spirit of the living God is released among us. When others start to criticize us as crazy, then maybe this house will begin to resemble that house in Mark where the supposed insiders accused Jesus of being out of his mind and where Jesus welcomed the crowd as his own family. 

There are three groups in Mark’s short encapsulation of Jesus’ ministry in today’s Gospel. Maybe the power of the good news that seems to be missing can be unlocked in this house if we identify not with the religious establishment, but with the crowds. Maybe then we’ll hunger anew for the Spirit’s power. Maybe then we’ll invite others into the crowded house where God’s love is shared.

A Godly Play Primer On The Trinity – May 27, 2018

May 27, 2018

In Godly play we give children a visual theological foundation that underlies a story, such as how we baptize. The beginning of the story is God who is Father, (lay down 3 intersecting white circles) Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The three scripture lessons we have read today give us the same foundation, Isaiah’s vision, Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus, Paul’s picture of life in the Spirit. Today on Trinity Sunday we heard the foundation of all our feasts in the Christian Year that our God is three yet one.

Once a man worshipping God in the Temple had a vision of this Creator God. His throne was high and uplifted. It was vast. Just the hem of his robe filled the temple. And the whole earth was lit up by his radiance. God was so holy that even the 6-winged angels who attended him and carried his throne didn’t dare to look at him. So, with 2 of their wings they shielded their eyes, with 2 of their wings they shielded the Holy One from view and with 2 of their wings they flew. The angels called to one another “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts…” The sound of their call was like thunder, shaking the foundation of the Temple and the vast hall of the Temple filled with clouds of incense. “Woe is me,” the man cried; “I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” And he fell on his face in terror. God, the Holy One of Israel.

There once was a man who did such remarkable things and said such wonderful things that one night a member of the council of the elders came by night to check him out. Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” The Teacher told him that no one could see the Kingdom of God or enter it, unless they were born anew. Nicodemus didn’t understand. Jesus explained that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life. (Light Christ candle) God, the Redeemer.          

The wind goes where it will. You hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with the Spirit. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. That is why the Spirit is symbolized in a dove who rides on the winds wings. The Spirit teaches us that we are no longer slaves to fear, slaves to our past, slaves to our failures, slaves to all the things we have done wrong in our lives. The Spirit teaches us that we are now God’s children – that God gives us a new name, a new identity, a new beginning. By the Spirit we learn to call the holy, untouchable, unknowable God, Abba, Father. The Spirit makes the broken, lost and unworthy ones into God’s beloved sons and daughters. God, the Sustainer.

In three different ways – or persons – the one God reaches out to the lost and hurting children of God’s own creation. The Holy one of Israel: high and lofty, unknowable, unsearchable, terrifying and vast, beyond all human knowing. Was not Isaiah right to fall down and cry out, “woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips?   The vision God gave him was overwhelming and terrifying. “Mysterium Tremendum” the great 20th century philosopher of religion, Rudolf Otto, called the experience of the numinous or holy. It is beyond us, terrifying yet fascinating. Like Moses before the burning bush, we tremble in fear at such an encounter. Yet at the same time the encounter with the Holy holds a strange fascination and draws us in. Isaiah was acutely aware of his sinful and unclean lips. And yet God drew him in and sent an angel to purify his unclean lips with a burning coal. (place tong in circle) “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah heard in his vision. Terrified yet fascinated, Isaiah murmured, “here am I, send me.” God the all-powerful.

Nicodemus witnessed the amazing signs that Jesus did (his miraculous healings, his words of power), but he didn’t understand Jesus’ purpose. He wanted to be part of this powerful prophet’s circle of influence, but he failed to realize that what he really needed was the new life Jesus was bringing. Unless he – Nicodemus – was born anew (born as it were from God on high) he couldn’t enter God’s Kingdom. Only the one who came down from heaven and yet lived like Nicodemus on earth could show him the true heavenly things. And only when he – Jesus – would be lifted high on a tree to die, would Nicodemus and the world see that the death Jesus would die for all of us, was an invitation to bring us through his death into new birth and new life. (Put cross on white underlay) We don’t hear from Nicodemus again until the end of John’s Gospel, when he and Joseph of Arimathea give Jesus a proper burial. The proud council member, who came to Jesus by night, now knew him as his Savior.

We can’t see God, or quantify or measure God or put God on a scale. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, the wind blows where it will. So, the Holy Spirit blows among us in ways we can’t predict, don’t control and usually don’t expect. (Share how Chrism smells but can’t be seen and put on Holy Spirit underlay) And yet, in prayer and silence we dwell in God’s presence. In worship we sense God’s nearness. In service of others we have a sense of having served not just someone in need but the living God. In repentance from our many sins and wrongs we have a sense of forgiveness and being made new. In obedience and faithfulness to God’s love we have a sense of participating in a power that is beyond us, yet near as our next breath. We didn’t create that sense of God’s love or presence or power. It comes from a place beyond us. And yet that divine power is always seeking to connect us to God’s self, God’s love, God’s joy, to a belonging as God’s own beloved children. The Holy Spirit is working in us, among us, unseen but present, often unrecognized, yet sustaining us and uniting us in God’s love as God’s own.

God: Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer; Infinite Power of the universe, Savior and Comforter. The 3-fold God as described in our 3 scripture lessons today) underlies (lays the foundation) for all the stories that follow. Do you see how these three circles intersect? I wonder how each circle can be distinct, yet fully connected? I wonder how they work together? I wonder why this three-fold God cares for you and me so much?

I wonder, which person of the Trinity you like best? I wonder if we could do without one of the persons of God if we’d have all of God? I wonder which one of these three stories about connecting with God connects most deeply with you? In Godly Play we encourage the children to share their answers to the questions, but we never impose a right or correct answer to the open ended questions we raise. Let me leave you today with that same sense of wondering about the nature of our God.

Inclusion Is God’s Idea – May 6, 2018

May 6, 2018

We get a Reader’s Digest condensed version of a truly remarkable story in our Acts of the Apostles scripture lesson this (morning). It might seem like a quaint vignette about one of many events in the advancement of the gospel throughout the world. But many theologians call this event a second Pentecost.

In the first Pentecost, which we celebrate in two weeks, the Holy Spirit came down on the disciples as they were gathered in prayer and blew all about Jerusalem like a mighty wind, as the disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit spoke the praise of God in a multitude of languages to Jews from all over the diaspara who were on pilgrimage in Jerusalem. In this story the Holy Spirit descends on a gathering of unclean Gentiles (the vast majority of people in the world) welcoming them into the Kingdom of God. Peter is present and preaching at both Pentecost’s but it is the Holy Spirit who is the real event planner here.

All of Acts 10 tells the story of the opening of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It isn’t until the last 5 verses in today’s reading that the Holy Spirit descends and Cornelius and his companions are baptized. In the Roman garrison of Caesarea, a Roman Centurion named Cornelius who was a God fearer, a Gentile who believed in the God of Judaism (even if Judaism didn’t accept him), was at prayer. An angel speaks to Cornelius in a vision telling him his prayers have been answered and to send for Simon named Peter, a Jew in the city of Joppa about 38 miles down the Mediterranean coast. And so Cornelius sent some of his servants and one of his officer’s down the coast to find Simon Peter. A day later, as the travelers from Caesarea were about to arrive, Peter who was tired, hungry and waiting for lunch, fell asleep and had a dream. The same dream was repeated 3 times. Peter saw a huge net descending from heaven capturing all kinds of animals: reptiles, birds, shellfish, pigs… in other words, all kinds of unclean food. A voice from heaven told him to get up, kill and eat. A shocked and offended Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” But the voice told him, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After the third time with the same dream, the group from Caesarea arrived at Peter’s doorstep and God told Peter to go with them.

When Peter arrived in Caesarea and entered the home of the Centurion, a home that he as a Jew was not permitted by Jewish law to enter, he went in and both he and Cornelius told of their remarkable visions. Peter began then to tell those uncircumcised Gentiles about the good news of Jesus. And that’s where we pick up the story today in the 44th verse of Acts 10. The Holy Spirit interrupted Peter mid-sermon; the power of God fell on those Gentiles and they miraculously started speaking God’s praises in Hebrew. An astounded Peter looked at the scene and asked his fellow Jews who have traveled with him from Joppa, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The Holy Spirit did something quite remarkable. Up to then, the Jesus movement had been kept within the bounds of Judaism. Jesus followers kept all the Jewish laws and customs and Gentiles were still regarded as outside the new Covenant. In Acts 10, we read how the Holy Spirit acted to include the Gentiles. Including Gentilse in the Christian community was a seismic change for the early Church. In many ways the rest of the Acts of the Apostles and all the letters of Paul highlight how difficult an adjustment the inclusion of the Gentiles really was for the Jesus movement. The Spirit of the living God was forcing the early Church “to come to grips with the limitations of their own ethnicity and cultural context in proclaiming a universal gospel.” (Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Lent/Easter, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993, pg. 151)

St. Francis Episcopal Church in Stamford has a wonderful catch phrase to highlight their mission: “Inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.”   I would like to highlight some moments in parishes I have served where I believe the Holy Spirit orchestrated a Christian community to open wider their sense of inclusion. One of the most powerful and best-loved stories of St. Peter’s, Eggertsville, a suburb of Buffalo, NY, where I first served as a Rector, involved the arrival one Sunday of the Talbot family. Vincent and Dorothy Talbot were the first black couple who had come to worship in this new post WW2 suburban church. It was in the early 1960’s. Vincent and his wife, Dorothy came up to the rail and knelt for Communion. A group of white congregants already at the altar rail stood up and went to the other side of the rail for Communion. Fr. Duncan, the Rector, calmly proceeded to give Communion to the Talbot’s and then passed by, refusing Communion to those who had moved to avoid close proximity to someone of a different race. Fr. Duncan has always been one of my heroes. Those bigots left the parish and the Talbot’s stayed. Vincent Talbot, a retired army officer, later became St. Peter’s first black Sr. Warden.

One hot and steamy Sunday morning in August, 2003, a week or two after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the election of Gene Robinson, a gay priest living with his partner, as Bishop of New Hampshire, two young women came for the first time to worship at St. Paul’s, Woodbury, CT, a church I served for 20 years as Rector. Pam, a slight young woman, was visibly tired, hot and very obviously 8 months pregnant with twins. Marianne, who was with her, I soon learned, was her partner. About 20 active families left St. Paul’s, because of the fall-out over the election of Bishop Robinson. They would not stay in a Church where homosexuality was accepted. Some of St. Paul’s few tither’s were among them. It was a severe loss and blow to our parish. Pam and Marianne and their twins, Matthew and Thayer, helped me and the people of St. Paul’s who remained, learn a new reality, that God was fully present and welcoming of people of more than one sexual orientation.

Four and a half years ago a Spanish speaking Episcopal congregation was looking for a new home, as the Anglo parish in which they worshipped had to close its doors. They asked if St. John’s could give them a home. I am glad to say that we welcomed Fr. Eddie and the people of Iglesia Betania. We have shared in worship together many times. Two weeks from today on Pentecost Sunday, we will worship together in English, Spanish, French and Creole, along with L’Eglise de L’Epiphanie, the Haitian congregation also worshipping at St. John’s for over 20 years. It is often difficult to fully understand each other. There are cultural differences that sometimes surprise us and language is often a barrier. However, we share the love of Christ and the traditions of the Episcopal Church. More than that, we share in community and fellowship together. The Holy Spirit has forced us to be more inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.

In Matthew 28 Jesus commissioned his disciples to go into all the world and to proclaim the good news to every nation and culture. Ever since, the Jesus movement has struggled with translating the Gospel into different cultural contexts and languages. There has often been resistance. Does the good news of Jesus really apply to them just as it does to us? Sadly, the Jesus movement has splintered into thousands and thousands of different denominations, because we have such a hard time bridging all those differences. Often it takes the work of the Holy Spirit to overcome our human resistance to God’s inclusivity.

Some adults find it difficult to welcome children to worship together in the same space. Some people don’t want to have to hear a language in worship other than their own. We often think of our own cultural contexts and norms as essential parts of the good news. Over the decades dancing, movie going and card playing, long hair and short hair, beards and shaved faces, speaking in tongues, traditional hymns and Christian rock, drums and organs, head coverings and bare heads: are all a short list of some of the cultural contexts that have sometimes been banned and sometimes been the norm in Christian life and worship. The cultural context for living and expressing the Christian faith, is always shifting.

As St. Francis’ catch phrase states: “inclusive, because diversity was God’s idea.” God is always breaking through our cultural limitations and prejudices to help us embrace more people with God’s love. Whom do you find it hard to embrace with God’s welcome as worthy to include in God’s love? Immigrants? Muslims? People of a different hue of skin or ethnicity or language or socio-economic background or politics or dress? I suspect that all of us, no matter how accepting, find some group of people more difficult than others to warm up to. How might the Holy Spirit be giving you a new vision to be more inclusive? How might the Holy Spirit be giving St. John’s a new vision to be more welcoming and reach out with a wider embrace? While it is not our catch phrase, I hope that it is also true of St. John’s that we are inclusive, because diversity is God’s idea.

When Love Comes To Town – April 29, 2018

April 29, 2018

Back in 1988 Bono and his bandmates in U2 wrote a song in tribute to the great bluesman BB King and famously performed it with him on their album, Rattle and Hum.

I was a sailor, I was lost at sea
I was under the waves
Before love rescued me
I was a fighter, I could turn on a thread
Now I stand accused of the things I've said

When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town

I was there when they crucified my Lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side
But I've seen love conquer the great divide

When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
But I did what I did before love came to town (by U2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzWITVlEKfk)

John, the Elder, writing to a community of new Christians, whom he simply calls “God’s beloved,” writes to tell them what can happen, what needs to happen in their lives, when love comes to town. Love has come to town in the person of Jesus Christ. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way,” he tells them, “God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

So the first thing that happened when love came to town is that they met Jesus. Of course, they didn’t meet him in person, they met Jesus in his story and they encountered the way that Jesus’ story had changed John the Elder and his companions. They learned how Jesus overcame death and hate by his atoning sacrifice. They heard how Jesus reached out to broken and needy people, touching and healing them. They heard how he healed those who were sick. They heard how he embraced the untouchables in society, how he ate with the hated tax collectors and sinners. They heard how through listening and deeply connecting to people who were lost – like the woman at the well, or the Gerasene demoniac, or Zacchaeus the tax collector - how Jesus brought healing and new life. They heard some of the amazing things Jesus said. They heard how he died and how God raised him from the dead and how he appeared to his disciples. They received with joy the good news of Jesus’ love for them and welcomed Jesus’ living presence through the power of God’s Spirit to live and dwell within them.

“God is love,” John told them. And Jesus is the living embodiment of God’s love. The way that we receive that love, the way that love of God can abide and live in us, is to let God’s love flow through us in loving others. We cannot see God. But when God’s love flows through us in loving others we see God in action.

Love can conquer broken hearts and broken lives. Love can transform a hardened and angry heart. Love can heal that which was broken. Love can help someone make a new beginning. But the one thing love cannot do, John tells them, is hate.

Our children are learning that lesson in the Dare to be Different curriculum based on the young adult novel by Madeline L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. Meg Murray, the protagonist in that story and her little brother Charles Wallace, learn that darkness is growing throughout the universe. The darkness is evident in people’s cruelty, in bullying, in greed and hatred, and in categorizing and judging people according to race or wealth or appearances. “It” (a horrific and evil being) is the seemingly all powerful force behind the darkness. It captures Charles Wallace and imprisons their father. Meg has to fight It. But how? She first tries to hate It and all It represents. She hates the meanness and cruelty and all that the darkness does, with a righteous anger. And she’s absolutely right to do so. Everything that It represents and does is wrong. And yet Meg cannot overcome the power of darkness with hate. Only love, Mrs. Whatsit shows her, can conquer the power of It. For It does not understand love, does not have the capacity to love, minimizes the power of love and is ultimately overcome by love.

John the elder tells the beloved community that anyone who purports to love God but hates his brother or sister is a liar. Hatred of your brother or sister is incompatible with the love of God. What does that love that comes from God look like? Well, it looks a lot like the love that Jesus shared. So much of human love, before real love comes to town, sees love as an investment. We love that which has value to us. We love that which can bring a return on our investment. We love and invest in our children because they come from us, belong to us and we want them to do well in the world. We love someone romantically because he or she is attractive, is a prize. We love our own: representatives of our own party, of our own clan, of our own ethnicity, of our own family, or our own nation. “God’s love,” in contrast, “doesn’t seek value, it creates it. It is not because we have value that we are loved by God, but because we are loved that we have value.” (William Sloan Coffin, The Courage to Love, New York, Harper & Row, 1982, p. 11, quoted in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, Claudia Highbow, Pastoral Perspective, 2008, Louisville, KY, Westminster, John Knox, p. 468) When we let God’s love work through us we don’t love another because of his or her intrinsic value to us, and not because of what he or she can give us, but because that person is made by God and loved by God. God’s love does not seek a reward or any recompense. God loves those who are worthless every bit as much as God loves someone you or I might deem worthwhile. Loving another with God’s love helps the person loved find their worth. We may never have seen God, but when we witness love like that we are looking into the face of God.

What can happen? What ought to happen in our lives when love comes to town? When love comes to town we, who are unworthy and lost, are found in God’s love for us. We are found in the love of Jesus who offered his very life for you and me and for all the millions of broken, hurting, lonely and lost souls on this planet. When love comes to town we take the miracle of our own redemption as a gift to be shared with others, a gift to be shared especially with those who need it most – those who are despised and broken and oppressed and hurting in this world. When love comes to town we realize that righteous anger at the growing darkness and hate so abundant in our world isn’t enough. We need to love those who God loves in spite of the hate, in spite of the darkness.

When love comes to town we learn that the sacrificial love of God is at the heart of every Christian virtue. We learn that the best we can do without love is but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Justice without love is mere legalism. Faith without love is ideology. Hope without love is self-centeredness. Forgiveness without love is self-abasement. Courage without love is recklessness. Generosity without love is extravagance. Care without love is mere duty. Fidelity without love is servitude. Every virtue is an expression of love. No virtue is really a virtue unless it is permeated, or informed, by love. (Fr. Richard P. McBrien, quoted in Homiletics magazine, May 6, 2012)

Every one of us has fallen far short of loving others as God in Jesus has loved us. As Bono and his bandmates in U2 put it, “maybe I was wrong to ever let you down, but I did what I did before love came to town. If we want to say, as I believe most of us do, that we love God, we need to learn to love more fully, more completely, more sacrificially our brothers and sisters.

Sightings of the Risen Lord in Stamford – April 15, 2018

April 15, 2018

The door was locked. The disciples were gathered inside that upper room. They were deeply unsettled, surprised, scared and yet hopeful about the news they were hearing from some in their own inner circle. Jesus was alive!? They could hardly believe it. After all, they’d seen him die. Now, 3 days later, the tomb was empty; that much they knew for certain. Peter now said that had seen him. A couple walking from Jerusalem to the little village of Emmaus met him on the road. He helped explain the scripture to them and they suddenly recognized him as he broke the bread. What could all this mean(?) they wondered. And then, suddenly, Jesus himself stood among them, right there at the table with them. They were shocked and terrified. Have you ever seen a ghost? Probably not, but the thought of seeing one is pretty scary isn’t it? Jesus had to show them he was real. He wasn’t a ghost or a disembodied spirit. He was flesh and blood. He showed them the nail holes in his hands and feet. And he asked for something to eat, eating a bit of fried fish and bread. A ghost couldn’t do that. The risen Lord was real; he was solid; he was alive.

That early Christian community experienced the reality of the risen Lord Jesus Christ in a number of ways. The resurrected Lord appeared bodily among them for some 40 days before he ascended. The chosen disciple band were eye witnesses. And then the early Christian community continued to experience Jesus’ embodied presence, whenever they gathered to break bread and drank wine in his memory. They experienced Jesus in their worship and the warmth and love of their community. They recognized him as their eyes were opened to understand the scriptures. When they served others, as they cared for those who were sick, clothed the naked, visited those who were in prison, it was as if they were visiting Jesus himself.   As they told stories and passed on the stories they had heard about all Jesus had done in Galilee, teaching, healing, proclaiming the good news, it was as if he were with them. Above all they experienced the power of his victory over death.

Jesus’ disciples did as Jesus asked them to do in this morning’s Gospel, to be his witnesses. In the Acts of the Apostles lesson Peter, James and John had just brought Jesus’ healing grace to a cripple. Then, as we heard, Peter shared with the crowd who gathered to see the cripple who had begged by the gate now walking, the powerful story of Jesus, crucified and now risen.

The reason we have the good news of Jesus today is because that early church experienced the reality of their risen Lord in concrete ways. We are the inheritors of that early Christian community. We continue to be witnesses of the living, risen Lord today.

We, as Christians continue to experience our risen Lord Jesus Christ. He is embodied (made flesh) in the love we share. He is embodied in the mouths we feed, the bodies we clothe, the people we visit, and in the lives of the people we serve. He is present to us in scripture and in prayer and in mediation and in ministry. We receive him in bread and wine. If we are faithful we invite him to live in our hearts. Those traditional practices are how we continue to know the flesh and blood concrete and nearness of Jesus our risen Lord.

Our Bishop has asked us to go further. Bishop Douglas has challenged the Episcopal Church in Connecticut to go outside our parish walls to discover Jesus’ living reality also in the world. In this day and age of “post-Christiandom” he challenges us to look in our neighborhood and discover where God is present and active. It’s not enough any longer in what is increasingly a “post-Christian” world to sit in our parish churches and wait for people to come to us. For increasingly, people are not coming to us. We are living in a post-Christian age. We need to go out into the world and meet people where they are. We need to be the church not only at 628 Main Street but also on Broad Street and on Bedford, and on Tressor and Henry Streets and Greenwich and Darien and Norwalk and beyond. God’s living presence is active in our world, our neighborhood and our Church.

There are two parts to a bishop’s visit. One is for the Bishop to preside at a worship service, which Bishop Ian did at our 275th Anniversary celebration on November 6 of last year. The other part is that he meets with the Vestry (the Church leadership). We’ve scheduled that meeting for May 1. Our assignment before that meeting is to go out and walk our neighborhood, however we define it, and note “where God has moved into the neighborhood to make what is broken whole.” Today some of our Vestry members will be taking that walk in the downtown area of Stamford. Yesterday some others of us walked around Stamford’s rapidly growing, changing and gentrifying South End. I had the privilege of walking with Anne Mavor Bear, who thankfully has a better sense of direction than I do.

Our walk took us from Canal Street to Pacific Street and some of the shoreline and neighborhoods in between. We witnessed the intersection of old, often dilapidated, neighborhoods and upscale expensive new high-rise apartment buildings as well as businesses and office buildings.   It is interesting to put on a different set of glasses as it were, a different lens to view the neighborhood, than how I normally see it. “How has God moved into this neighborhood to make the broken whole?”  

Anne and I noted some interesting things. So many old and decrepit buildings: warehouses, abandoned shops and factories have been torn down and a whole new community is rising in its place. It’s exciting to see what has happened and all the building that is still taking place in this part of Stamford. For those finding new homes and community and opportunity it is undoubtedly a kind of healing of that which was broken. But to those whose neighborhoods are being disrupted, who are being priced out of their homes, it is far from healing. Anne pointed out to me Serendipity Labs on Canal Street, a building where individuals can rent office space in an open office setting, so that there can be “serendipitous” connections and interactions. Next we noticed Woodlawn Cemetery, an old and beautiful green space in the midst of a vibrant city. In the midst of a graveyard we are reminded of our hope in Christ beyond the grave. The quiet and peace of that setting can bring healing and wholeness. One of the people we met and talked with is the owner of a new spa. This amazingly fit looking young woman athlete was a former professional weight lifter. She was excited to show us the special infrared heated spa rooms where one can be rejuvenated and experience physical healing through a variety of treatments. We passed Inspirica, which is provides housing and hope to many in breaking the cycle of homelessness. We saw where other vital community services are housed. We saw parks and children playing. We saw places of worship.  

The ways in which God is moving into the neighborhood to make the broken whole are ways that we as Christians can see God embodied, God incarnated, God’s love made a flesh and blood reality in the world.

Jesus challenged his disciples in today’s Gospel to be witnesses to his flesh and blood reality, the reality of his dying for us and rising from the grave to lead us into new life. We see those same disciples sharing that witness in the Acts of the Apostles. How can we be witnesses to Christ’s victory over death in a post-Christian age, an age that no longer props up and supports the Church, but largely ignores it? How can we be witnesses to his reality in the midst of our community where, if we open our eyes to see, God’s love is in many ways active and making the broken whole?

Jesus is not a ghost. He is not spiritual only, but flesh and blood, alive. He is real. He is substantive. Jesus’ love, a love that conquers death and gives life to those who are entombed, needs to be incarnated, embodied, made flesh and blood reality. How can we as a parish and as individuals find that resurrection power not only within these walls, but also outside of these walls in our neighborhood? How can we share Jesus’ resurrection power with people in our neighborhood? How can we share in some of the ways that God is already bringing healing in the neighborhood and how can we invite people in the neighborhood to discover ways that God is bringing healing and life within these walls, in our worship, in our community and in the love of Christ we share?

I wish I had the answers to all these questions, but that’s a journey we need to continue on. For Jesus calls us, as those disciples in the locked upper room, to be his witnesses.

Easter Sunday and April Fools Day – April 1, 2018

April 1, 2018

Happy Easter and April Fool’s Day! The last time Easter and April Fool’s Day coincided was back in 1956 and it won’t happen again for another 19 years. When I looked at the calendar and realized that April Fools Day, fell on Easter Sunday I realized that my choice of the Gospel lesson for this day had to be from the Gospel of Mark. There are four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection but only three years in the liturgical cycle of readings, so there’s a choice on Easter each year between the Gospel predominantly featured that year (Mark in this, year “B”) and the Easter story from the Gospel of John. The Easter account in John is well written, full of interesting detail, intensely personal and tells the Easter story much as we expect to hear it. There are interesting details about Peter and John and of Mary Magdeline, who is the first disciple of Jesus to actually encounter the risen Lord. The Easter account in the Gospel of Mark by contrast is sketchy at best, full of darkness and confusion, and particularly frustrating for the way it concludes: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8) Although several different endings have been tacked on to Mark over the centuries, scholars agree that the original Gospel ended there in Mark 16:8. Is that any way to end a Gospel? The Greek is even worse than the English translation for the actual last word that ends the Gospel is a preposition, “Gar,” meaning “for.”

Now I may sound disparaging about the Gospel of Mark, but really Mark is my favorite of the four Gospels. From the very first chapter of Mark there is a constant sense of surprise and mystery about Jesus. Mark lays it out clearly in the first sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” But then no one in the Gospel story itself seems to have any idea what that first sentence means. The crowds are amazed. The disciples are amazed. Jesus does all sorts of wonderful and amazing things. But none of them gets it. Every time Jesus heals someone or casts out a demon or speaks with authority, they stand with their mouths open wondering “who is this guy?” Only the demons, who recognize in fear and trembling that Jesus is the Holy One of God, understand. But Jesus silences them and casts them out. So, in the first half of the Gospel of Mark, the predominant theme is what scholars call “the Messianic secret.” The reader knows who Jesus is, but no one in the narrative seems to grasp it. Then, right smack dab in the middle of the Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples point blank who they think he is. Well, some say he’s like a prophet of old and some say he’s the new emergence of Elijah and some say he’s John the Baptist come back to life. Finally it’s Peter who proclaims in Chapter 8:29 that Jesus is the Messiah. But the next minute Jesus calls Peter “the Devil,” because Peter doesn’t want to even hear Jesus talk about suffering and dying.

And so for the next 4 chapters in Mark Jesus teaches them about the meaning of discipleship, that the true way to follow Jesus is through serving others. They never seem to understand. Then we come to Jesus’ crucifixion. All the people we would expect to stand by Jesus abandon him. One of his chosen 12 betrays him. The other disciples flee. Peter, who had promised that he would never abandon or deny Jesus, denies three times even knowing him. The only one who speaks with faith at Jesus’ crucifixion is an outsider, a Roman Centurion who, on witnessing Jesus’ death, proclaims “Truly this man was God’s son.” (Mark 15:39)

Which brings us to the Easter narrative we just heard. It’s dawn and the faithful women who followed Jesus throughout his ministry have come to the tomb to anoint his body. Their biggest worry is who will help them roll away the heavy stone that seals the tomb. But when they arrive the stone is already rolled away. They enter the tomb and find an angelic visitor telling them that Jesus is not there, but is going ahead of them to Galilee. And then these faithful women flee in terror. Is that any way to end a Gospel? Doesn’t it sound more like an April Fool’s joke than the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God? Why do the women flee in terror instead of sharing the good news with Jesus’ disciples as the Angel asked them to do? It appears that they would have been more comfortable caring for Jesus’ dead body than hearing the disconcerting news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The Gospel of Mark is truly the right Gospel for April Fool’s Day.

What is going on here? Why are the women, as the angel in the tomb asked them, seeking the living among the dead? Why is everyone in Mark’s narrative afraid? Why does no one expect, as Jesus had repeatedly told them, that he would die and then rise from the dead? Why are they not dancing with joy at this good news? What is Mark trying to tell us?

Perhaps we’re so accustomed to speaking of Jesus as crucified and risen that his resurrection from the dead is no longer shocking or surprising to us? But can you imagine visiting a friends grave – a friend you saw die – only to find the tombstone knocked over and an open, empty casket with a bright heavenly messenger telling you your friend was not there, but that he or she had risen from the dead? You might be pretty scared too. What might your friend’s resurrection mean? What might it change for you?

The angel tells the women, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” What do you think Jesus was going ahead to Galilee to show and tell them?   Well, there are two places, one in Matthew and one in John, where the disciples meet the risen Lord in Galilee. In John 21 the risen Lord appears on the shore of the Sea of Galilee while the disciples are out fishing. Jesus makes a charcoal fire, helps cook some of their fish and tells Peter 3 times that if he loves Jesus his job is to feed his sheep. And in Matthew 28 Jesus commissions his disciples to go into all the world and encourage all races and cultures to be followers of Jesus.

All the way through the Gospel of Mark Jesus’ followers misunderstand him. He keeps turning their world and their expectations upside down. They want to be important leaders and Jesus tells them that the one who makes himself least of all and the servant of all is the truly great one in God’s Kingdom. They want heavenly rewards; Jesus shows them the life of self-sacrificial love. They want glory; Jesus explains that “anyone who wants to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35) Maybe what Jesus wants his chosen followers to go to Galilee and discover is their true calling as his disciples. Maybe his resurrection is an opportunity for his followers not to triumph and glory in Jesus’ victory so much as to emulate his death, by giving up their own self-importance, taking up their cross, dying with Jesus in order that they might rise with him to a life of service and self-sacrificial love.

What about us? Is there any possibility we might misunderstand Jesus and his mission? Might we ever be tempted like the 12 to run away when things get difficult? Do his modern day followers ever twist his message about love and acceptance into one of exclusion and judgment? Are we ever tempted to skip the carrying of our cross, dying to self and service of others and wanting to go straight to blessings? Are we ever so self-satisfied that we find Christ more in platitudes than in the faces of the hungry, the lonely, the poor and needy ones he calls us to serve? Might Jesus’ challenge to the expected order of this world, his turning everything expected – even death – upside down, be terrifying? Then the angel’s message is to us. He goes ahead of you to Galilee, to the places where your life and struggles are lived. There you will meet him. There as you die with him you will rise with him to the new and resurrected life of joy and hope and love and service.

The Apostle Paul, who tradition says was an associate of Mark, wrote in 1st Corinth 1:18 that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” He went on to say in verse 23-25 “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” So, maybe April Fool’s Day isn’t such a bad day to combine with Easter. Maybe Easter makes Jesus’ followers look like April fools to the world when we proclaim a dead and risen Lord and follow him not in a life of grandeur but in a life of service.

On Easter Sunday we may not be looking for the foolishness of the cross, but that’s what Jesus went ahead of his disciples to show them. As Paul wrote to the Philippians,

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not count equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death -
even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)

The foolishness of Christ may not be exactly the message of Easter lilies, springtime and joy that we all came to Church this Sunday to find. But it is – as Mark shares with us this Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day – the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.