Sunday, August 22, 2010

A consuming fire

Baptism at All Souls, November 30, 2008

A sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 22, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13:10-17.

Last month when I was on retreat with some other clergy, we realized on the first day that the retreat center had evidently been talking to the fire inspector.

Last year, when we were together, each small group of us, when we got together to pray and talk about things, had a “group candle” we would light. It was a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s presence among us. Of course, the Holy Spirit doesn’t vanish when the candle isn’t lit, but it remained an important symbol of the Spirit. It was light. It was warmth. It was flame. It connected us to those biblical passages in which God’s Spirit is likened to fire. Before Jesus, John the Baptist explains that while he baptizes with water, one will come (the Messiah) who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There is fire, too, at that first Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit makes herself known to the disciples by appearing as flames of fire, dancing over their heads, and the fire burns away confusion and difference, ignorance and misunderstanding, so that all understand each other. All of that comes to mind when one lights a candle, especially when one lights a candle among other believers, friends in the faith, with whom one has been praying, for whom one has been praying. But not this year at our retreat. This year, the candles were electric. They had a battery somewhere in them. And they had an “on/off” switch. It was different, this year.

One of my group, Christina, who is an Episcopal priest in Cuba, refused to look at the candle, “that thing,” she called it. At each of our small group’s meetings, I would playfully offer her the candle-thing and ask if she would like to “be our acolyte.” “No,” she said, “get that thing away from me. It’s horrible. It shouldn’t be.” Christina had no time for fake candles, fake-fire, or fake flame. I think she probably associated it with fake faith.

I suppose there might be a faith equivalent for an electric candle. It might look like someone whose practice of faith is artificial—it is “turned on” perhaps for Easter and Christmas, but otherwise the batteries can be removed for safekeeping. Or an electric candle faith might be like the kind of person who keeps his or her faith on a shelf. It is so private, so personal, so individual as never to risk – certainly never risking causing a fire, but also never risking helping another warm to the flame, helping another see by the light, helping another burn with the love of God.

But when we’re open to it, that’s what the Holy Spirit does within us. The flame offers warmth, light, and love.

In Isaiah, we’re told just that, that if we can just stop pointing fingers at each other and speaking in (what Isaiah calls) “evil ways,” then all kinds of things are possible. Our “light shall rise in the darkness, and our (previous) gloom, be like the noonday.” Through our faithfulness, others are blessed—they find food and have their needs addressed. Water comes to the parched, and keeps on coming. Old divisions are healed; separations overcome. When the fire of God burns within us, it spills over onto others.

In Jesus we see the light of God’s love burning brightly, so brightly that it attracts people from all over. When people see him, they want to follow wherever he’s going, because it seems to lead toward increasing light. When people meet him, they want to become different people, more like him, more like God. And when people feel him, they are healed. That’s what happens in today’s gospel reading with the poor woman who is bent over, who’s been crippled for some eighteen years. Jesus looks at her and refuses to see someone who is limited, someone who’s old, someone who is pitied, someone who doesn’t matter. Instead, he sees her as the child of God that she is. With his whole treatment of her, he loves her. The light of God shines on her like the light of the sun on a seedling, and love (and life itself) calls her to grow taller and stretch high so she can come to touch even God.

Whenever God burns within us there is warmth for others, there is light for others, and there is love. And when we’re open to it, there’s no risk of its being artificial, or temporary. There is no on/off switch. Instead, the fire of God that burns within us is a consuming fire.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds the faithful of the way God’s fire went before the people of Israel, illumining the way, keeping them from stumbling. That same fire burns brightly in the Heavenly Jerusalem, the symbol of our meeting place with God, where the light is thick in its strength, amid innumerable angels feasting and celebrating, with the spirits of all those who have tried to live faithfully finally fulfilled, made holy, and made one with God. This is no flicker of a candle. It’s an eternal flame, so bright that is even gives light to those of us still on earth. We notice its glow. We move in its warmth. We are made holy by its light.

In just a few minutes, we will baptize James Raymond. We offer him a little of that heavenly, eternal, consuming fire as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s dwelling within him. We baptize with water. We anoint with oil that seals with God’s spirit. And we offer a lighted candle. Some like to bring their candle out on the anniversary of their baptism. Others like to put it away with baptismal keepsakes. Either way, the real message is that God’s light burns within James, and from this day forward, God through him will continue offering light in the world.

A parishioner recently reminded me of a wonderful story that comes from the early years of Christianity, when women and men would go to live in the desert as a means of purifying and strengthening their faith. The desert itself was a bright place, but these people were looking for the light of God. They were looking to increase their own burning to be as much and as pure as possible. These desert fathers and mothers were called abbas and ammas. And so, there’s a story about Abba Lot, who goes to see the older and wiser Abba Joseph.

Abba Lot says, “Abba Joseph, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?”

And then, Abba Joseph, the old man, stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”

May the Holy Spirit quicken the flames that burn within each of us. So that we might be consumed in the fire of God’s love.

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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feasting with Mary

Detail of Nativity Window at All Souls

A sermon for the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, August 15, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 61:10-11, Psalm 34:1-9, Galatians 4:4-7, and Luke 1:46-55.

Peter Gomes, the great preacher and teacher at Harvard, suggests that many Protestants have trouble with Mary because we assume she’s a Roman Catholic. He imagines what happens to an especially Protestant dean of a Cathedral after he died. This dean had little time for the Virgin Mary, and so when he finds himself in heaven. “Jesus comes down from God’s right hand and says, ‘Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven; I know you have met my Father, but I don’t believe you know my Mother.” (Sermons, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p.11)

I should “come clean” and admit that in some ways it’s the Virgin Mary’s fault that I am an Episcopal priest. (If not her fault, then at least it happened with a good bit of her influence.)

In my introductory theology class in seminary our primary textbook was called Principles of Christian Theology by John Macquarrie. I studied the textbook, but it my reading the footnotes that got me on a path that would take me out of the Presbyterian Church and into the Episcopal Church.

Somewhere in that textbook, there was a footnote that referred the reader to a document published by a group called the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When I looked up this group in the seminary library, I found that not only were there papers and pamphlets, but also I found out that the group was truly ecumenical: it was made up of Lutherans and Presbyterians, Roman Catholics and Orthodox, Episcopalians and even a few Baptists. The group’s purpose was to try to recover the rightful role of Mary in Christian theology. Carl Braaten, a Lutheran theologian points out that “The vehement attack of the Reformation against the exaggerated cult of Mary in late-medieval Christianity diminished [Mary’s] place in the story of salvation, personal piety, and public worship.”

And yet, Martin Luther maintained a very high view of Mary. Luther wrote, “Mary does not desire to be an idol; she does nothing, God does all. We ought to call upon her, that for her sake God may grant and do what we request. Thus also all other saints are to be invoked, so that the work may be every way God’s alone.” (“Magnificat”, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, pp. 326-29).

The more I learned about Mary, the early church, and sacramental theology, the more I felt cheated at having grown up in such a Protestant background. While some Roman Catholics might have layers of cultural and folk tradition with which to sort through, I felt like I had nothing but ignorance and prejudice.

It is true that some of what has come to be believed about Mary springs from the hearts of faithful believers. Early Christians began wondering about Jesus. If, as the theologians insisted, Jesus was born of a woman, people began to wonder what that woman must have been like. The New Testament scriptures offer minimal information, but other scriptures and writings that circulated in the early Church also seem to point to Mary and her special place in God’s plan of salvation. In other words, Mary (or someone like her) needed to be there for God’s plan to work out. And that plan includes us and our eternal life not only with God, but also with Mary and all the other saints.

The Gospel reading for today is clear enough. In words we know as Magnificat, for the Latin “my souls magnifies,” we hear Mary praise God. The Angel Gabriel reveal to Mary that she is going to give birth to a very special baby, and while Mary’s first instinct might be to run far, far away; instead, she stands still. She remembers words that Hannah used to praise God (way back in 1 Samuel), and Mary quotes what she remembers of Hannah’s song, and then she adds her own twist.
In the Magnificat, we see Mary as faithful to God’s calling, even when it seems scary, even when it brings danger, even when it might turn everything one’s world upside-down.

In the Letter to the Galatians, our second scripture reading today, we hear Paul’s understanding that God is working through Mary, an ordinary woman, in order to create a new family, a family of God into which each one of us is adopted. No one is born with special standing. No one inherits more than another. But each one of us is like a stranger to God, like a slave to the things of the world, until we are baptized, until we claim God and God claims us, and we are adopted into God’s family.

The first scripture reading this morning, from Isaiah is another joyful passage: I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall exult in my God;

Isaiah is writing to God’s people who have been help captive, and he’s announcing that it’s soon time to go home. They’ll be restored to their homeland, they’ll be reunited with loved ones, and there will be a time of peace and new life. “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.”

Just as humanity encountered a fall in the first garden, the garden of Eden. Mary is understood as the New Eve. The womb of Mary is understood as the new garden, full of possibility and wonder and life.

Ideas and beliefs about the Blessed Virgin Mary have surely grown beyond what we find in scripture. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth had little patience with all of this. He famously said, “In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Church which explains all the rest.” And yet, even as one among the saints—those heroes and heroines of the faith, those known and unknown—even as one of the saints, Mary deserves our attention, and I believe we can learn from her.

There are at least three ways in which Mary can be a model for us and can help us grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. (From Beverly Gaventa’s books, Mary, Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus and Blessed One.)

First, there is (what Gaventa) calls “the vulnerability of Mary.” She allows God to direct her life. She is obedient in the truest sense of that term—her obedience in no way takes away her strength, her agency, her feistiness, her strong-mindedness (remember when she is at the wedding at Cana, and they’re running out of wine and she looks at Jesus as says, “Do something. Try to be helpful!”) Her obedience in no way diminishes her personality. And yet, she is wholly dedicated to God and God’s purposes.

Second, Mary is able to reflect on the events in her life. That’s no small thing. There have been times in my life when I’ve been regular at journaling. When I look back at those journals, much of my musing is embarrassing and seems immature, but then there are parts where I’m really surprised that I was able to notice something in particular God seemed to be doing in my life. It reminds me that in order to notice, I need to slow down sometimes. I need to pray. I need to open my eyes and look. Or perhaps close my eyes and listen. Mary NOTICED what was going on around her, and slowly, but surely, seems to have realized what God was unfolding in her life and in the world.

And finally, Mary can teach us what it means to be a witness of Jesus. You know the classic posture of the icon that shows the Blessed Virgin Mary with the Baby Jesus on her lap. And Mary is pointing very subtly as if gesture what she said: “Listen to him. Watch him. Do what he says. He is the way.”

A few years ago someone gave me a nightlight of the Blessed Virgin Mary. I like it especially because, in it’s small light-blue way, it symbolizes some of the attitudes one finds around Mary.

On one hand she has been diminished, turned into the stuff of folk-magic and kitsch. Her image appears on toast and on roadside underpasses just as surely as it she appears at the holy sites of Lourdes or Medjugorje. She might as well be blue, light the night light, like Vishnu, or like the Navi in “Avatar.”

And yet, the nightlight Mary is also a good image for those who have known something of her presence, her steadiness, her reliability, and her willingness to be a soft light showing the way. She shows the way to Jesus. She showing the way to eternal life in God.

May God’s Spirit help us to know the Blessed Virgin Mary and especially to know her qualities, so that we too might be brought to heaven, raised high with saints and angels, and behold the risen Christ face to face. In the name of the Father, and the of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Monday, August 09, 2010

From fear to faith

The Virgin Hodegetria (she who shows the way)

A sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 8, 2010. The lectionary readings are Genesis 15:1-6, Psalm 33:12-22, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, and Luke 12:32-40.

This is an unusual Sunday in terms of the scripture readings all lining up around a particular idea. And that idea has to do with our fears: with what we may fear, with God’s desire that we be brought through and beyond fear, and finally, the scriptures offer us a hint of what a fearless world might look like.

We hear in Genesis the words, “Do not be afraid.” The word of God comes to Abram saying “Don’t be afraid, because God will be like a shield for him, protecting him, no matter what. God will be his shield, and what’s even more—especially in a culture where one’s descendants were one’s life—God is going to provide Abram not only with an heir, but with generations as plentiful as the stars. And so, through the mercy of God, Abram is brought beyond any fears he may have had about the future, and he becomes Abraham, the great ancestor of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And all of that becomes possible because Abram got over his fear.

The Epistle reading, Hebrews, is a beautiful hymn, almost, to faith—faith, in some ways, being the other side of fear. By faith, Abraham obeyed, and looked, and followed. By faith, Sarah laughed, and followed, and conceived. In Hebrews we’re given that famous definition of faith: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Fear often has to do with the power of things unseen.

Fear, of course, can be good and useful sometimes. Especially at this time of the year, it’s just smart to be at least a little afraid of the water, afraid of sharks, afraid of standing in lightening or too much sun.

But fear can also stifle. Fear can keep us stuck.

Some of you may know the (1932) novel by Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. It was also made into a wonderful movie, that for many of us, what our first introduction to the story. In the movie, a young woman, Flora Poste, is a smart nineteen-year-old from London, who is orphaned and begins to write various relatives to see where she might live. Eventually, she receives an invitation from the Starkadders, who feel like Flora’s father had been done wrong by their clan at some point, and so they owe it to Flora to take her in.

She arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, the Starkadders’ place that is just about falling apart. And there are dreary characters in every direction. The horse is named Viper, and the poor cows are named Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless. The whole sad family is ruled by a matriarch who refuses to come out of her room in the attic. Aunt Ada Doom, refuses to come out of her room because, years ago, as a girl, she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” We never learn what she saw, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone in the family knows. It’s not even clear if she still knows what she saw. But the fear that began in the woodshed has completely infected her. That fear has changed her and made her small, and scared, and sad. And Aunt Ada Doom’s fear casts a spell over the whole farm.

I don’t want to spoil the whole story for you, but I will say that the arrival of Flora Poste, and her commonsense way of interacting with each family member eventually helps Aunt Ada to leave the fear in the woodshed where it belongs, and step into life again. And guess what? As soon as the fear is let go, the whole family finds freedom.

Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid, for it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” The kingdom of God may look different for each one of us, but for most of us, at some level, I thing God’s kingdom has a similar effect in our lives as that of the transformation of Cold Comfort Farm. Whatever fears are gnawing at our insides, whatever fears perhaps have been scarred over the years, scarring us so that we even have trouble moving… whatever fears there are that limit us or hold us back or keep us stuck--- God pulls us through those fears, beyond those fears, into a world of faith, into God’s kingdom.

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Get ready.” And he uses several images to convey a sense of anticipation—to try to help us see what it’s like to greet the kingdom with faith, and not fear.
He says, “Be like those who are charged with taking care of a house while the owner is away. Be like those caretakers who are in charge while the head of the house is away at a wedding. Blessed are those who are awake at the return.”
He also says, “Get rid of the things that burden you, that weigh you down, that keep you from moving forward. Because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Let go of fear.”
In the scriptures, as Jesus meets various people, each one is invited to step into the kingdom of God. And so often the people he meets are stuck in some way. They’re stuck in old habits. They’re stuck by past sins. They’re stuck in a warped perspective or stuck in a world that is so narrow they’re not able to breathe.

There’s a woman who has been caught in adultery. They’re ready to stone her, but even if they let her go, they’ll continue to see her as she used to be. They’ve got her stuck in a bad place. But Jesus forgives her and invites her to leave fear behind, and follow in faith.

Zaccheus the tax collector is stuck in a tree when Jesus walks by. But Jesus calls him out of the tree, and into and among people. Zaccheus doesn’t need to be afraid of being laughed at, made fun of, hated… Jesus says, “stop being afraid” and calls him into the kingdom.

On that first Easter, when Mary Magdalene leaves her fear in the cave, she’s able to see the resurrected Jesus. And she’s able to move forward into the kingdom of God Jesus promises.

The kingdom of God is different from the Magic Kingdom. I have a friend who is about to take his family to Disney World and so we were talking about the Magic Kingdom the other day. The Magic Kingdom comes in other forms, too—not only at Disney World. A kingdom that promises magic can be made of any illusory thing—of the promise of substances, of drugs, of experiences, of all the things that would have us make them rulers of our lives.

But the Kingdom of God is different. God’s kingdom begins here on earth and continues into heaven. Though it can SEEM magical, the kingdom of God is really about our being able to see the world (the world, other people, and ourselves) from God’s perspective. Not magic, but sometimes miraculous.

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, he’s not talking about a physical place. It is not a location as much as it is a state, a way of being, a type of consciousness, another awareness. The kingdom of God is where God’s will is actively done. The kingdom of God is that place where human needs are met, sin is forgiven, and lives are changed—by the truth of God’s love and by the fire of God’s forgiveness. The kingdom of God is that place where people live out the depth of God’s love—where we forgive each other and show love in practical, real ways. The Kingdom is that place where the God of heaven and earth, the God of all time and being, the God of all creation, stoops to wash the feet of a disciple, holds out bread and offers a cup. The kingdom of God breaks into our lives whenever we leave fears behind and do something bravely with faith.
Jesus calls us somewhere else. Saint John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear.”
May the Holy Spirit enable us to leave fear behind, to claim from the saints our inheritance of faith. May the Spirit enable us to live daring lives of faith and love.

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

Living Richly

Narthex window, All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church

A sermon for Sunday, August 1, 2010. The lectionary readings for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost are Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-11, Colossians 3:1-11, and Luke 12:13-21.

Not long ago I met someone who was interested in the church I serve. “Where, exactly, are you in Washington?” “We’re in Woodley Park,” I explained, “right near the National Zoo.” “Oh,” this person said, “that’s a nice neighborhood. It must be a wealthy church.”

I have to say, I was a little taken aback by the person’s directness. But thinking about this morning’s Gospel—a Gospel that encourages us to be rich toward God—I looked the person right in the eye and said, “Oh yes, we’re an extremely wealthy church. But I don’t think we’re wealthy in the way you mean.” There are times—in our church life, as in family life—when we don’t have all the money we’d like. There are some things we cannot do, some things we cannot fix right away, some causes we cannot give as much to as we might like. But like some very poor families, we are extravagantly wealthy in other ways. We are rich in our worship. We are rich in our affection for one another. We are rich in our welcome and our invitation for all. We are rich in our care for those who need something—whether that “something” is a material need, a physical need, or a spiritual need. We are rich towards God, even though God calls us to be richer, still.

Whether we have money to throw around in this world is another issue, really. We’re to be rich toward God, and that has little to do with the actual amount of money in our back account. I sometimes think that God might be almost indifferent as to whether we are wealthy (or not). I do think God wants us to have enough, to have plenty, to rejoice in bounty, to have everything we need, and perhaps even to have lots of extra-- so that we can share and help out other people.

I believe God wants us to be full, satiated, complete and lacking nothing. But I don’t think God really cares whether we have one house or five. I don’t think God is bothered by what one drives, or what one wears, or whether one summers in Dupont Circle or the south of France. To get hung up on those questions is to miss the point of the Gospel.

Jesus suggests that we should be “rich toward God.”

Jesus has been talking with a group, probably a group of bystanders and some of the disciples. He’s been warning them about hypocrisy and trying to help them understand what it means to live a life completely dedicated to God. In this context, a man asks Jesus to take his side in a question over an inheritance. We don’t know the exact nature of this man’s question, but biblical scholars would point out that the reality of Jewish inheritance laws at that time held that the eldest son inherited twice the amount that might have gone to a younger sibling. Perhaps the speaker in the Gospel is one of the younger brothers.

I don’t know about you, but the part of me that longs for a world that is fair and just wishes that Jesus would take the man’s side. But that’s not the real issue here. Like he does in so many other situations, Jesus evades the political, cultural, or legal question. Instead, he goes right to the spiritual question.

Jesus uses the moment to point out to the crowd that the real issue real issue is about where one's heart is. It’s not about who has more money, or more stuff, or more power, or more prestige. It’s about how we use it. It’s not about how big the wedding is—it’s about whether you invite God or not.

The Jesus tells the parable about a man who keeps building up storehouses for all of his grain. But the man builds in vain because he is disconnected from God. The real issue has to do with our relationship with what we have. Does it lead us closer to God and God’s people? Or does it drive a wedge between ourselves and all that is holy? Jesus says we need to be “rich toward God.”

Being “rich toward God” has to do with the currency of things.

We speak of the “currency” of things because they move around, they go from one person to the next, they have a life and rhythm to them. Things in currency are not meant to be kept in one’s hands, but get their life out of being passed around and shared. Wealth is like that. It grows only through a certain amount of risk.

It’s that way with the currency of money, the currency of our relationships, and the currency of time. All of these are ways that we can be rich toward God.

Being rich toward God does involve money, at some point, and with the risk involved of letting go. I grew up in a church in which members tried to outdo one another in giving—anonymously. Over and over, again, there would be some major gift to the parish, some program, some extra music, some new mission begun—with a grant from an anonymous donor. That’s living richly toward God.

Being rich toward God also means being rich toward God’s people, how we spend ourselves through the currency of our relationships—both with the people inside the church and those outside. What would it be like if we lived richly toward one another, giving one another the benefit of the doubt, offering first mercy instead of judgment, extending first a welcome rather than wondering if the stranger might fit in or not?

And finally, how do we spend our time? Do we give any of it to God—for God’s use, as well as simply time to be with God, to allow God to draw us closer through prayer, through reading of the Bible, through worship? All of this has to do with being rich toward God.

When I think of richness, of people I have know who were incredibly rich, I always think of the prayer circle of church women who would send me little notes when I was in seminary. This was a group of women at my home church who prayed together and studied the Bible. Every so often I would receive a card from them. In the card would be seven one-dollar bills, sometimes nine one-dollar bills, and one time, a small fortune: thirteen! Each time, the ladies would scribble a message, something to the effect of, “We know this isn’t very much, but we hope you can do something special with it. Spend it on yourself, don’t do anything responsible!” That made it challenging. I would get an expensive ice cream cone and write them about it. Once when they sent money, a new coffee shop had just opened and I got a really expensive, fancy coffee.

What made this such a wonderful gift was not only their random sweetness. But also, I knew these ladies, and I knew that they were not wealthy women. Like many older people, they were counting every single dollar and trying to cover medications, transportation, rent, contributions to church, support of family and friends…. and out of this, they gave also to me. I experienced their generosity not out of their wealth, but out of their richness.

On this day when the reading from Ecclesiastes reminds us to keep a perspective on life; and when the reading from Colossians urges us to worry not about clothes, but about clothing ourselves with such things as “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience; may the Holy Spirit show us what it is to be filthy rich—rich toward God.

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


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