Monday, February 22, 2010

The First Sunday in Lent

The Temptation of Christ, Juan de Flandes, c. 1500, National Gallery of Art, Washington

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 21, 2010. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

Around this time of the year I think about T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday. If you run out of things to do this week or want a Lenten meditation, I encourage you to look it up.

But today’s scriptures make me think of another poem of Eliot’s, or at least the beginning of one of his poems. There is a section of “Little Gidding” (Section 5 of “Little Gidding” from “Four Quartets”) that begins

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Eliot plays with time and sequence in this part of the poem. “The end of all our exploring / will be to arrive where we started / and know the place for the first time.”

All kinds of things can invite us to return to our roots, to think about where we come from, or to remember old experiences. Sometimes it happens when we re-connect with an old friend. It happens when we get Christmas cards, especially the ones that include photos. It can happen when someone we know and love dies. It can coincide with a birthday or an anniversary. Or the liturgical seasons themselves, the rhythm of the church year, can invite us to turn and to return—to our beginnings, to our early experiences of God. Sometimes having returned, we find we’re in a new place altogether. We “know the place for the first time,” but we meet God (and ourselves) again.

In the first lesson from scripture, the people of Israel are given specific instructions on how to move forward, move into the promised land, but how to do so without ever forgetting where they’ve come from. Rituals of remembrance are put into place. Specific foods are mentioned. Religion is referenced. And a celebration of bounty tops off the feast. The people are being prepared for a change, for a growth spurt, for conversion, for the Passover.

In the second reading today, Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds those early Christians of their inheritance, that the Holy Spirit has come into their hearts and planted there the spark of God’s love and life. “The word is near you,” Paul says, “on your lips and in your heart.” And so, don’t doubt. Don’t fear. Don’t worry so much about getting lost, because God has given you a spiritual GPS that will bring you back to God (and back to yourself) in God’s own good time.

In the Gospel, Jesus has all of this tested. The devil appears and tests Jesus’ sense of himself, his sense of his own history with God, and the devil certainly puts to the test Jesus’ own internal GPS, what we could possibly (though clumsily) call a “Godly positioning system.”

Whether we picture the devil as a little red man with a tail and pitchfork, or whether the devil is more that little voice inside each of us that second-guesses and accuses, the temptations Jesus faces are ones that we might be confronted with from time to time.

The temptation of turning stones into bread, is really the temptation of gluttony, to satisfy ourselves with food and drink and stuff, to find happiness in these things.

The temptation of pursuing glory and authority of the world is not so different for us. There are the countless choices we make between doing the thing that will better our paycheck or professional standing or status, as opposed to doing the just, honest, true and decent thing.
Finally, the third temptation for Jesus to jump off the temple top and be rescued by angels, is among other things the temptation we sometimes feel for safety, the temptation to stay out of the struggle, away from the conflict, in our own quiet, secure little corner of the world.

To each of the temptations offered by the Devil, Jesus quotes scripture. In other words, Jesus touches base, he calls home, he does whatever he needs to do to center himself and remind himself of who he is and of whose he is.

The season of Lent is a good time for us to take stock of our “homing devices.” What contributes toward our having a GPS, or Godly positioning system? Is it prayer? Scripture? Conversation with other people of faith and integrity? Is it getting deeply involved in a cause? Is it meditation, or Centering Prayer, or yoga, or fitness, or a sacred meal?

The life of faith bears out the words of Eliot, that “We shall not cease from exploration.” But through the grace of God, through remembering and reconnecting with the holy within us, “the end of all our exploring / [can] be to arrive where we started /And know the place for the first time.”

May this season draw us closer to God and closer to our true selves.

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

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Remembering Steve Collins

All Souls window at All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

A sermon for the memorial service celebrating the life of Steve Collins, held at All Souls on February 20, 2010. The lectionary readings are Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Psalm 121, and Matthew 18:1-4.

There are a number of people who could not be with us today. Some family are out of town. Friends have to work to catch up from the effects of the weather. Musicians have performances to give. And then there is what I’m sure must be the most under-reported, little-known, cultural, intellectual, educational, (and dare I say—social?) event on the East Coast--- the Mid-Atlantic Flute Fair!

Katherine Riddle, a flutist friend of Steve’s, remembers how he enjoyed these fairs. He was drawn (of course) to the exhibition of golden flutes, and would try out each one. When the performances happened, Steve would offer his own insights—by pun or sarcasm, in that way that he was very good at. He would say something a little sarcastic, and then you’d see him smile and you’d think “Oh, he’s just joking.” But then you’d wonder, “Or, is he?”

And so, though we may be few today, there are many who are with us in spirit. Friends and family, Steve himself, not to mention the whole company of saints, martyrs and apostles, the matriarchs and patriarchs, the angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven. In this time we remember. We reflect. And we rejoice.

The Gospel today is a simple one, known well to many. The disciples are squabbling about rank and importance and Jesus answers their questions by putting a little child in the middle of the circle. “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom heaven.”

Sometimes this story is depicted in painting or stained glass in a kind of weepy, sentimental way. As though Jesus, the Ultimate Nice Guy, is being kind to the sweet little children. But in Jesus day, children were thought to have much less value than a good sheep or chicken. You could get something out of a cow or a chicken, but until the child grew up and was able to contribute to the family, the child was basically worthless. Children were not thought to have “rights” or “privileges” until fairly recent times.

When Jesus places a child in the middle of the group, he is doing a radical thing. He is confronting the disciples’ questions about social status by lifting up the very lowest of the low. If you imagine the kind of person in our culture who perhaps has the very least social standing—who knows who that might be? perhaps a non-English speaking immigrant who is sick, perhaps an older person who has mental illness and is not a lot of fun to be around, perhaps a criminal with several addiction issues--- this is the sort of person Jesus is placing in the middle of the group.

Be like a child, Jesus says. Be childlike, but not childish. Embrace joy. Laugh. Notice what is funny in the world and don’t take yourself or the world too seriously.

And I imagine that as Jesus places that child in the midst of all the adults, I imagine the fear that child must have. And I bet Jesus whispered to her something like, “Be brave, you are God’s child, and God loves you.”

Jesus says, “be brave” with his actions, and he shows us what “being brave” looks like. There was much in the life of Steve Collins that shows us what bravery looks like.

At first, it might surprise you to hear me describe Steve as “brave.” We often think of the women and men in Iraq or Afghanistan, or we think of Mel Gibson in “Brave Heart.” We often think of overt strength, muscle, and power.

The Oxford English Dictionary adds that “brave” can also mean “gallant,” or “fine.” To be brave is also to be courageous, daring, intrepid, and stout-hearted.

It is a brave thing to be a musician. Steve and I talked about my playing the saxophone and bassoon through junior high and high school. I quit when I got to college. When Steve asked me why, I said something about not having time to practice and not wanting to be second rate, so I would just give it up and pursue other things. But there was really more to it. No one in my family or social sphere had ever studied music in college. It simply wasn’t done. To study music, to major is music, meant making a huge gamble on life—how would one make a living? How would one afford to live? In other words, it took (and takes) a kind of bravery to study music (to follow one’s passion of any kind, for that matter). And Steve had that kind of bravery.

It is a brave thing to move beyond one’s family (in culture, in practice, in geography). Steve spent many years around people who loved him deeply in what most would consider a fairly conservative social and religious background. Steve moved in and out of that community, that world, that family. Sometimes the movements were less graceful than other times, but one of the great gifts of the last year of his life (especially) was that there was healing, there was forgiveness, there was understanding. He loved Leonard and Peggy, Larry, Brad, and Jeray. He loved his parents, his extended family, and the various religious communities in which he served. It takes bravery to venture out and find one’s own expression of life, and Steve showed that kind of bravery.

Of course it is among the bravest things to stare down disease, to look death in the eye, and continue to choose life. Some of his friends and family tried to talk about end-of-life issues with him, but Steve usually responded in a way as if to say, “Never mind about that. It’s all worked out.” Steve had chosen life. He had chosen life in Jesus Christ. He had chosen life everlasting, and so, he knew there was nothing to fear.

I imagine Steve in that part of heaven where the musicians hang out. He’s probably consumed in conversation with Fauré, and Bernstein, and his former teacher, Irene; and many, many others. And so, we can sing bravely along with their music. We can live bravely in our choices and decisions. And we can follow bravely and faithfully the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

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

Ash Wednesday

Burning the ashes at All Souls on Shrove Tuesday

A sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2010. The lectionary readings are Joel 2:1-2,12-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Psalm 103 or 103:8-14, and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21.

Though I’m not sure I would have planned it this way, having the snow still cover the ground on Ash Wednesday is a nice symbol. Last night when we burned last year’s palms to make ashes, we placed our burning bowl in the snow. The contrasts were wonderful. First there was the contrast of the bright red and orange flames against the white snow, and then as the flames died out over time, there was the blackish gray ash against the white snow. Some of the ash drifted or blew out of the pot and so, when the flame had died down, there were a few ashes scattered on the snow, making it look dirty. My first impulse was to get some fresh snow from somewhere else and cover it up, make it all white again, “pretty it up” again. And then I thought about what a perfect symbol that was for today--- ashes against snow.

The snow freshens and seems to clean. And as it melts there is water.

Water is at a premium. Economists and war experts believe that the next great wars will be fought over water. We are careful with our filtered or bottled water, because we live in dry times.

Dust and ashes are good symbols for our time. Dust and ashes remind us that we are connected to the earth. We are more alike one another than we are different. Dust and ashes remind us of our beginning and they remind us of the way we will end.

Ancient believers put ashes on their heads when they were grieving or when they asked God to forgive them. And so we do the same thing. We use this day and the season ahead to do some spring cleaning of the soul, to get rid of what needs to go. We clean out, so there might be room for the new.

Spiritual disciplines can be a way of spring cleaning. Fasting, prayer, almsgiving, works of charity, works of mercy—all of these can help bring our lives back into balance. They can add moisture to desert lives. They can wash us with living water. Water like the water that washed us at baptism. Water like the water that will, with Christ, baptize us into eternal life.

The dust and ashes remind us of the way things end—in burning, in disintegration, in death. But they also remind us of that early day talked about in the Book Genesis. God breathes new life into the dust. God breathed new life into the dust and made Adam and Eve. God breathed new life in front of Ezekiel and made dead bones dance for joy with new life. God breathed new life into this chosen people again and again. And God breathed new life into the dead body of Jesus, making him to rise and ascend and rule and live for ever and ever.

The Gospel reminds us that we are not to be spiritual show-offs. There is no competition for holiness. But we are to be open, to be honest with God about our lives, so that God can come into and fill us with new life.

The snow comes and cleanses. It’s melting gives water. And so, may our dry lives be quenched. May our hearts be changed. May our tongues taste Living Water. May God breathe new life into the dusty and dead places in our lives.

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

Monday, February 15, 2010

Face to face with God

The Transfiguration, Fra Angelico, 1440-1441.

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 14, 2010. The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

Not too long ago a friend of mine called and she had a question about planning her wedding. She said that she had a question that she hoped wouldn’t sound stupid. And so, I got ready. It turned out that the question she had been wondering about, the thing that had been worrying her, and the reason she finally called me, had to do with what she would wear as the bride.

“Should I wear a veil?” she asked.

Well, I didn’t really have an opinion, I told her, why was it so important, I asked? “Why? Well, because of what it means,” she said. “I mean does it symbolize that I’m some modest, shy girl, wrapped up like a Christmas present, to be given from one person to another? Or does it represent some kind of big change that’s about to occur? It is more polite for me to wear a veil. Is it old fashioned or avant garde? What do you think?”

Veils are interesting and they’re complicated, aren’t the? In some cultures, veils make people feel comfortable. Women find unusual freedom behind a veil. Men don’t feel threatened when women wear veils. Some veils can bring anxiety down.

But in other cultures, in our day (and often in our airports) veils can cause discomfort. They invite us to wonder, “What is being hidden? Why the veil? Why not come clean, and be honest, and show the face?”

Veils are sometimes used sometimes by brides at weddings. Sometimes they are worn at funerals by those who grieve. They hide the tears and allow for privacy. Veils are used to cover a great work of art or a plan or a model, so that when it is first shown, it is dramatically unveiled. Genies and belly-dancers use veils. (Or so I’ve heard.)

Veils in church find their way into church—not only with brides.

In churches like this one, we use a veil to go over the communion chalice and other items used in communion. During Lent, we veil crosses and other sacred objects, and on Maundy Thursday, the priest uses a special veil, called a humeral veil, to move the Blessed Sacrament from the Main Altar to the Mary Chapel, to what we call the “altar of repose.” The Holy Sacrament is reposed in that chapel, and we remember how Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed..

The veil in religious use is sometimes used for handling holy things and sometimes used for what the monastics call the “fasting of the eyes.” As one artist has put it, “Through a fasting of the eyes, sight becomes vision.” (Elaine Lasky)

Special things get veiled. Holy things get veiled.

Moses needed a veil when he talked with God. Whenever he went up Mount Sinai and spoke with God, his face would become bright. This scared the people so badly that he began to wear a veil whenever he spoke with them. They could still catch a glimpse of the brightness, but then he would quickly put on the veil so that they wouldn’t be afraid.

In our second reading, Saint Paul uses this story about a veil to talk about what is old and what is new, what is hidden and what has been revealed. Moses received the law from God on Mount Sinai, but Paul is trying to help people understand the new freedom and movement in the life of Christ that completed and transcends the law. For those who have faith in him, the life and love and spirit of Christ becomes so bright that there’s no denying it. The promise of life, the promise of life eternal in Jesus Christ is such a splendor, such a brightness, such a hope, that the old law is a dull blur in comparison. That’s a part of what is happening at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain. Whatever veil might have existed between God and God’s beloved is lifted—the Law (represented by Moses) had a part in lifting the veil. The Prophets (represented by Elijah) had a part in lifting the veil. So that Paul can talk about this new freedom we have in God, a freedom to see God face to face. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

We are changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another. Veils are lifted and parted as we move closer to God. In some ways these veils culminate in the great temple veil, the veil that hung in front of the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple.

On Good Friday, Saint Luke reminds us that “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light faded, and just before Jesus gave up his spirit to the father, the curtain of the temple was torn in two.”

The veil of the temple, a curtain of a veil meant to demarcate the great gulf between sinful humanity and holy God—that veil was torn in two. Rowan Williams writes about this in his little book, Ponder These Things. He writes, “Because Christ has torn the veil, we can enter with him; we live in the heavenly sanctuary, offering prayer with him. That is what is happening in every eucharist. The whole history of the world is interrupted by the cry of Jesus from the Cross; and all that we try to put between ourselves and God is torn down by God’s own utterance.”

God has torn down the curtain of separation, and God tries to tear down whatever veil might separate us from his love. But what sort of veil might we continue to put up? Is it shame or a sense of false modesty that keeps us from moving closer into God’s presence? Do we give custom and convention too great a place, somehow convincing ourselves that they’re not just veils, but walls? Sometimes the veils we make are shiny and they reflect our own glory, rather than allow us to perceive God’s glory.

As Archbishop Williams puts it, it is for us to “stop and sit still; let the living Word of God tear the fabric of our expectations and our anxieties alike, tear through the embroidered pictures on the curtain.” The weaving of religious veils keeps us not only from God, but also obstructs our view of the world. And so we don’t see one another clearly and we miss the part of God that is all around us.

God is always and everywhere inviting us to come closer. To let down our guard. To relax. To breathe. To allow for the holy. Allow for the mystery. Allow for the silence. Not so he can burn us with judgment, but so that he can enfold us in love.

The veil comes down in prayer, in worship, and in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

In just a few moments, the veil is lifted. We are invited to drink and eat in the presence of God, to be with God as God is present with us. As we receive the food and drink that God offers us, let us be reminded that God has already opened the veil of separation. God has opened to veil of death and let life flow in. God has opened the veil of humanity and allowed it to perceive divinity.

Though it can be tempting to want to cover ourselves, to hide from God, and to hide from all that is Holy, may we have the courage to remove our veils, that we might allow God to change us, to remake us, to transfigure us. And may we also see God face to face.

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

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Catching for Life

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2010. The lectionary readings are Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, and Luke 5:1-11.

The Gospel today brings us a fish tale. On the surface the story may sound familiar enough. Aspects of this particular fish tale appear also in Mark, Matthew and in John. But there are slight differences.

In Matthew, Jesus is baptized, he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and then he goes into Galilee. He sees Simon Peter and his brother Andrew fishing and Jesus interrupts their work. “Follow me,” he says, “and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-22).

Mark’s version is similar. the fishing story is placed within the larger context of Jesus calling his disciples, assembling his team, choosing his friends and followers. Follow me, he says. And they follow.

The Gospel of John adds characteristic drama as John places the story within a resurrection account. It is the risen Christ who offers tips on fishing, so that the disciples catch so many fish they can hardly bring them in.

In Matthew and Mark, these stories tell of the charisma and power of Jesus. It’s a force that hits people in immediate way. People meet Jesus, they see that there is something different about him, and for whatever (perhaps complicated) reasons, they leave what they’re doing and they follow. In John, it is Jesus with divinity showing through, able to know the future, able to affect the weather and the natural order of things, even to reverse the effects of death.

But in Luke’s story, (the Gospel we read today) there is a different focus, and we have a close-up on Simon Peter. The formal calling of the twelve apostles comes later in chapter 6 as Jesus chooses the twelve out of a larger gathering of people who seem already to have been following him. When we hear Luke’s version of the fishing story, it comes not with the initial “follow me.” Jesus and Simon Peter already know each other by this point. Jesus has just healed Simon’s mother-in-law. Word has spread about Jesus through the towns and the synagogues and so there is none of that initial, startling surprise at the recognition that Jesus is someone special. Instead, there’s a kind of second recognition. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is saying to Simon Peter not so much “follow me,” but more, “keep following me,” “follow me even further,” “follow me in yet a different way.”

Simon is a fisherman. He knows what he is doing and he probably knows the waters of Galilee as well as anyone. When Jesus suggests that they drop fishing nets in a specific place, Simon complains that they have already been fishing all night. Nothing is biting.

This is the Simon Peter we know from other places in the Gospels: quick to speak his mind, fast to question Jesus, so bold even to talk back to Jesus. It is Simon Peter who names Jesus as the Christ. At the transfiguration, it is Peter who wants to act, to build shelters for the visiting Elijah and Moses. When there is talk of Jesus’ dying, Simon speaks out against it. After the crucifixion, it is Peter who speaks too quickly even then, denying Jesus three times.

It is a strong personality. I would imagine Simon was as sure of his fishing as he was of anything else. But by this point he knows Jesus and he trusts Jesus. The Lord says, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon mutters, “We’ve fished all night, with nothing—but ok, if you say so.”
And Jesus makes it so.

Suddenly, there are fish everywhere. They hit upon a whole school of fish. The fish are so many that the nets are breaking and they need extra help. Water is splashing, fish are flying and the boat is sinking, but Simon Peter suddenly “gets it” and he falls to his knees. He sees something new in Jesus; he sees something new in himself. “Go away from me, Lord” he says, “for I am a sinful man.” In that moment, Simon Peter recognizes his own willfulness, perhaps his pigheadedness, his need to get his own way, his need to understand everything, his lack of trust, and finally he confesses his need for someone stronger and wiser and more godly.

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says, repeating the words of angel after angel to so many; the word of God to humanity from the beginning to the end. “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

This word that Jesus uses meaning “to catch” people, is a strange word. It includes in it the prefix we know from Greek that means life, “zoe”—as in zoo and zoology and protozoa, with animals and living things. And so the word Jesus uses, (zogron) means not that you’re going to be catching people and that’s that. But you’re going to be catching people for life, you’re going to be catching people and adding to their life, making their life more, helping them move into the fullness of life. It’s a word that is used to describe the process by which a teacher might “catch” a student, “catch him or her up” into a new way of thinking and living and being; a new and better way.

Before long Simon Peter and the other disciples would, indeed, be catching people for life, and they may not have understood until later that they would be catching people up even into eternal life.

The Gospel today speaks to us as a church and also as individuals.

As a community, as “church,” we are called to fish. If we have spent much time in church at all, we have probably heard of the “great commission,” those words in which Jesus charges his followers to go and make disciples of all the nations. Though we may interpret their urgency differently, though we may pursue different methods, most Christians agree that we are called to share our faith, to catch others up into the life of Christ, to offer baptism, to share Eucharist. But the practice of this catching, can leave us feeling tired or anxious or (looking around at empty pews) we can even feel a little desperate. Perhaps we are like Simon Peter. We’ve done the equivalent of fishing all night long. We’ve tried that program. We’ve tried reaching out in that way. Perhaps we’ve even tried offering door prizes and incentives—who knows what we might have tried, but we sometimes get to that place of resignation and frustration. Our nets are empty, we’re out of ideas and it’s getting late.

But perhaps it is at just this point that we are called to stop and listen like Simon Peter. I wonder if Jesus be pointing to the deep and saying something like, “but have you tried over there?” “Go out a little deeper and give it a try.” The church in our day spends money and energy trying to attract the young, trying to attract the rarest of things—the couple with children. We have fished and fished. But could it possibly be that Jesus might be pointing to others as well? Especially in this city, have we tried to reach the students? Have we done what we might to reach the elderly and aging? Have we tried to reach those who are working so many hours they don’t know what they’re looking for? Have we tried to reach those who don’t speak very good English? Have we tried to cast our net out there—into the deep, into the place we’ve not yet been? “Do not be afraid,” Jesus says. “Do not be afraid.”

The Gospel indeed speaks a word of encouragement to our efforts at evangelism, but it also speaks a word of encouragement to our own understanding of who Jesus is.

Simon Peter shows us that there are levels to recognizing Jesus as the Christ. There is an initial surprise, if not shock that with Jesus things can be different. I can be different. But just as Peter grows in his understanding of Jesus, we too can grow and change in our reception of Christ, in the way that we allow ourselves to be caught up into new life. The old word for this is, of course, “conversion,” a turning and turning again to Christ, so that as we turn we see a new aspect of God even as we come to understand a new aspect of ourselves.

And, on this cold day in February, I think we are called to keep fishing, to keep catching people into the life of Christ, even as we allow ourselves to be caught anew.

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


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