Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday

Hildegard of Bingen's "Holy Trinity"

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010. The lectionary readings are Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, and John 16:12-15.

This Sunday is a problem for most preachers. It’s a problem because we get into trouble very quickly whenever we try to say something coherent about the Holy Trinity. It gets even trickier if we try to avoid heresy of some kind—usually by trying to say something profound in a simple or straightforward way. Maybe the Orthodox have it right (no pun intended). One might do better to contemplate and celebrate and praise God, rather than try too hard to figure God out. The Orthodox tend to focus more on the Divine Liturgy—the experience of God in the community at worship—than on doctrine. On Trinity Sunday, it would, in some ways, make much more sense for us to let the musical texts of the day—the anthems and hymns-- do the real preaching.

Our first hymn dedicates a verse to the Creator, to the Lord of Glory, and to the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. “In the song of thy salvation every tongue and race combine. Come Jehovah, great Jehovah, form our hearts and make them thine.” (Regent Square, 368) There’s the Tchaikovsky “Hymn to the Trinity. ” Before we leave we’ll sing out the familiar “Holy, holy, holy … God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity.” And really, what more could (or should) be said about the Holy Trinity than to echo the simple words of the communion anthem that pray, “Free us, save us, defend us, O blessed Trinity.”

The music communicates the heart of the Holy Trinity, that the doctrine of the Trinity is a way not only of understanding God, but a way of getting into God and God’s getting into us. But the scriptures for today also provide images that suggest some of the ways this happens.

In Proverbs we meet a character hinted at last week on the Day of Pentecost. Wisdom is personified as a woman who goes through the city, who journeys throughout the earth, looking for anyone who will hear. And we learn Wisdom is not just a holy woman, but Wisdom is very closely related to God—before the creation itself, she already was. She was God’s “daily delight.” One version describes her as the architect by God’s side, playing happily in the presence of God.

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we’re reminded that God has given us the Holy Spirit as a kind of second wind, a wind to lift us up when we’re down, to urge us forward when we’ve stumbled, and a wind to invigorate our faith whenever it’s grown tired or confused.

Jesus promises that the Spirit will continue to guide us even after Jesus has left this world. Jesus says that what is of God, is also of Jesus, and what is of Jesus, is also of the Spirit. The three are one and God’s intention is that we be absorbed into the life of God, the life of God in the Trinity.

One theologian (George Handry) has put it this way: in Christ we have God with us. In the Spirit we God in us. But while we have both of these, we also and always have God over us.

God the parent is over us, Mother, Father, the author of all life, the one who holds us, cares for us and sets out the plan in which we find our way.

God the Son, Jesus, is God with us, walking before us and beside us as an elder brother, a friend, a companion, a shepherd, a guide, and a support.

God the Spirit is God in us, giving us strength, probing our conscience, showing us where the world most needs God, which is to say, where the world most needs us to show God and be the love of God.

But even all of that can seem abstract.

Frederick Buechner is a writer, preacher, and theologian who wrote a little book some years ago he calls as a “theological ABC.” In it he picks a number of words often used in church, and then he gives them a definition that is usually part poetry/part practicality. In his explanation of the Trinity, he suggests that really, the “doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, there is only one God.”

“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit mean that the mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery.

This idea of God being one and three at the same time can be confusing, unless, Buechner suggests, we look in the mirror.

We look in the mirror and there is You. But there is a part of you, as aspect of you, a hidden you that you either choose to reveal or not to reveal. There is this interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to. This is a little like God the Father.

When we look in the mirror we see ourselves, but we see several selves, if we look. There that part that can be revealed or not revealed, but there is also the very visible face. To some extent it is our face that even reflects the inner life. If we’re upset, it usually shows on our face. If we’re rested or at peace, it shows. If we’re in love or wanting to show love, it is sometimes transparent. This is a little like God the Son. The face of God, showing a little of what God is like, but not absolutely every aspect.

Finally, we look in the mirror, we see our complicated selves and we notice that with who we are with what we have, there is a kind of invisible power we have that allows us to communicate our interior life to others. But this invisible power allows us to share our interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are. You know what this is like, when you meet someone or you’re with someone and you realize that you’re changed because of that person. The person has somehow communicated a part of his or her very self which has not become a part of your very self. Buechner suggests that this is like the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit communicated the face and reality of God in such a way that we know God, we receive God, and we even begin to become a little (usually only a very little, in this life) like God.

And there we have it: as clear, or as distorted as looking into a mirror. I look into the mirror and there are three of me, and yet, what I’m looking at in the mirror is clearly and indivisibly the one and only me. [From Buechner, Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC,” p. 93. Republished as Wishing Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC.]

May God the Holy Trinity bless us this day and forever; and may God help us to recognize the divine in one another and in ourselves.

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

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Gift of a Second Wind

Andy Warhol's Last Supper, "Dove"

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 23, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:25-35, 37, Romans 8:14-17 and John 14:8-27 .

Some of you know that I’m a big fan of the religious art of Andy Warhol. If it sounds like I just mis-spoke, you may have a little of the surprise I had when I first learned that Warhol had actually DONE some religious art. His own religious experience—of attending Orthodox worship with his immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, or attending Mass very frequently at a Catholic church in New York City— Warhol’s own religious experience can be surprising, until you see it in some of his art.

The first religious art of Warhol I saw was in 1999 (the Soho branch of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City). There, they had 26 paintings of Warhol’s version of the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples in camouflage colors, or in the bright colors of Warhol’s imagination. Sometimes contemporary advertising icons are interspersed with the Warhol’s take on the famous Last Supper by da Vinci. My favorite of these illustrates the Holy Spirit using the dove from the Dove soap icon. So, as Jesus sits in his customary spot, in the middle of the disciples at the Last Supper, there, hovering just over his head is the Dove from the soap ads. Just to underscore the point, Warhol includes that familiar, whooshy, word in its soapy script: Dove.

There are many ways to interpret Warhol’s juxtaposition of the contemporary images along with the sacred, but one suggests that he is pointing to the cheapening of religious images. He is point to how easy is it to confuse a deep, symbolic, religious idea with a shorthand symbol of that idea. But if we confuse the Holy Spirit with a Dove bar of soap, we have the Bible to blame, in part.

In the description of the baptism of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove. In Matthew’s Gospel the Spirit descends “like a dove,” so it may not have really looked like one, but in a quick reading picked up by much of art history, we have inherited this idea that the Holy Spirit can be represented by a dove. Some suggest this reminded the early believers of the dove that Noah sent out to search for dry land, or that (like in the Prophet Hosea) the dove represents Israel. Andy Warhol’s use of the Dove bar reminds us that at baptism, when we are washed clean, the Holy Spirit is present, and so we might not be so far off, after all, if we gave bars of Dove’s soap at a child’s baptism. But don’t worry. We’re not going that far.

On this Day of Pentecost, we (again) try to open ourselves more fully to the gift of God’s Spirit, and we, like most of the Church, struggle with the images. The Spirit of God at the beginning of creation is like a wind, or like a breath. This Spirit hovers over the creation of all things. In the Wisdom Literature of the Bible, the Spirit is personified as a woman running through the streets, Lady Wisdom, seeking for any who will stop and listen to what she has to say. In the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit descends like tongues of fire and does quick work at helping all of the disciples who have gathered—disciples from all directions and languages and cultures and backgrounds and differences—understand each other. Of all the work of God’s Spirit, helping people who are very different from one another be able to understand each other while retaining their individuality and difference—that is surely the work of God, and work we should pray for and welcome.

The Holy Spirit sometimes comes in overpowering ways, like a wind that clears away all that is old and needs to go, making way for God’s new life among us. And sometimes the Spirit is like that still, small voice heard so long ago by the Prophet Elijah. Elijah has run out of options. He’s tired of doing all the talking, the authorities are after him, he feels alone and afraid. But when he finally slows down, when he finally gives up, there in a cave God’s Spirit comes like a whisper, like a breeze that only slightly stirs, and Elijah, himself, finds a second wind.

Though there are many images for the Spirit, this idea of God’s Holy Spirit being like a “second wind” is one that resonates for me.

A second wind comes sometimes in surprising ways. I remember when I was a teenager and I used to mow the grass and take care of several yards in our neighborhood. Sometimes, because of thunderstorms or my own doing other things, the grass would get really tall and I would have just a few hours to get a whole lot of work done. On several occasions, I remember being furious with the world, mad at everybody, hating the lawnmower, and wishing I were a rich kid and could be sitting by a swimming pool somewhere. As I was struggling with tall, wet grass, my brother would show up. He would have a story or two and would talk my ear off. He might infuriate me by suggesting a quicker way to get the work done (which I would resist, but then see was, in fact, a better way). Eventually he would leave, but I would finish up my work really quickly. His visit gave me a second wind. Whether he was motivated by his own need to have an audience for his stories, or whether my parents suggested he stop by, or whether it was the Spirit of God—it worked like the Holy Spirit for me.

A “second wind” can come in the form of a friend, or a colleague, a stranger, or even a family member. And (of course) sometimes WE are urged by God to be the second wind for someone else.

I think this idea of a “second wind” is what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel. Philip wants to see God and Jesus tries to explain to him that by being in the presence of Jesus, Philip has seen God. But Phillip worries about what will happen when the vision fades. What happens when it doesn’t feel like God is around? What happens with faith fails? And Jesus promises that the Advocate will come—the Holy Spirit of God advocating for us, advocating for the way of love, the Advocate, the Holy Spirit will teach you, remind you, be with you. God will bring you a second wind that will bring peace.

In just a few minutes we will offer a strange prayer. It is a prayer for the blessing of a machine, in particular, a prayer giving thanks and asking God’s blessing upon the church’s Automated External Defibrillator. It’ is appropriate that we do this on the Day of Pentecost (though it was tempting to wait until Sacred Heart Day – (get it?) We hope we will never need to use this machine here, but if we do, and wherever such machines are used, we give thanks for God’s gift of a second wind—whether that comes through a person or a machine.

However we picture or imagine the Holy Spirit, may we be open to the Spirit’s power in our lives. May we be alert to the second winds that give us strength, and may we be alert to God’s spirit when we are called to offer that support and strength for one another.

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

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Easter, May 16, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, and John 17:20-26.

Some of you who walk or drive down Connecticut Avenue early in the morning know that on most days, after Morning Prayer in the church, I tend to walk up the street and get coffee. I like the walk. I get to admire the garden and see what’s changed since the previous day. I pass some of the same cars in the jammed traffic and say “good morning” to some of the same people many days. And at least once every couple of weeks, I pass a man gentleman who works at one of the nearby apartment buildings. Whenever he sees me, he yells the same thing—whether he’s a block away, or whether there are other people around, or whether there are cars lined up, waiting for the light to change. “Pastor,” he says, “pray for me. Pray for me, ok? Pray for me.” I wave hello and say, “of course, I do and I will pray for him. I’ll keep on praying for him.” And then before I walk away, he usually says a few more times, “pray for me, all right? Remember, pray for me.”

Thomas asks me to pray for him because I’m a priest. He knows nothing about me, really. But he knows that I work at All Souls, he expects that I pray and that my prayer includes other people. And there’s something about him, I bet, that assumes that my prayer might somehow be more effective than his own. I could argue with him theologically, spiritually, and pastorally about that. After all, the heartfelt urgency of his prayer IS prayer, I think, and the God I love and worship hears and honors and accepts Thomas’ prayer as soon as he asks me to pray for him.

God’s hears Thomas’s request for prayer, and I believe that God is working on an answer. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there? If I do pray for him, and when I pray for him, something else happens, doesn’t it? When I pray, I enter a new place, a spiritual place, and I take the person I’m praying for with me. We are there, in some way, in the presence of God and I believe that the effects of that presence linger into our lives.

The power of prayer runs throughout today’s scriptures. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles shows us that our intentions in prayer don’t always account for very much. In other words, it sometimes doesn’t much matter if we “feel” like praying, or if we even have good feelings towards the person we may include in our prayers. Paul and Silas and some others were in Macedonia, one of the Roman colonies. And there, they met a slave-girl who was telling fortunes and making good money for the people who owned her. And she started following Paul and Silas and yelling things out behind them. Paul got so annoyed (the word used in the scriptures is that he was exasperated, he was “made miserable” by her) and so he snapped. But rather than yell at her. Rather than hurt her in some way, he prayed over her. Then things went from bad to worse. She lost her soothsaying powers and her masters lost their good money, so they had Paul and Silas arrested and beaten up. But then they prayed again, they sang hymns, they praised God and called on God, and God responded with an earthquake that shook the jail. The doors were opened, people were freed, and even the jailor and his family were converted to God.

Notice that the prayer of Paul begins with a prayer of annoyance (do something about her, God!), then moves to a prayer of emergency (save us), and finally a prayer that ends with rejoicing, rejoicing among strangers-turned-into friends.

Prayer finds its way into our second reading in a roundabout way. Though the Revelation to John (the same John of Patmos shown in our stained glass window) has been used in a multitude of ways—to encourage people, to scare people, to sell books… the Revelation is essentially a vision. It’s the other side of prayer. It’s what happens on God’s part in response to faithful prayer: God shares his thoughts and plans and visions and dreams for us and for all of humanity. And what a vision John’s prayer finds: Christ is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. He welcomes home his blessed ones—all those who have believed, who have been baptized, and who seek the love of God. “Come,” says the Spirit of God, “come and drink, and wash, and frolic in the Holy Water of God.” Christ’s coming will be soon. But before, during, and after; throughout the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, we have his grace. And that grace sustains us and enfolds us in his safekeeping.

In the Gospel Jesus prays for his disciples and he prays for us. He draws us closer to himself and to God through prayer, by prayer, because of prayer, in prayer. And we can do the same. We don’t have to be holy to pray. We don’t have to know anything in particular in order to pray. We don’t even have to have the right motivation (whatever that might be). It doesn’t matter what technique we use, or which words (if we use words)—if our intention is prayer, the God will hear that prayer.

And answers come. They sometimes come disguised. They usually come slowly. They often come in ways or forms or by people who surprise us because in asking God for something, our own ideas sometimes cloud the process. But God answers. God shows up. God comes through.

One of my favorite stories about prayer involves a new bishop who wanted to make a comprehensive visit of his diocese. When he heard that there was a small island with a tiny monastic community worshipping on it, he told his staff that he’d like to visit. A boat was gotten and the bishop set off to visit the little island. When he got there, three aging nuns came out to greet him and the bishop began, right away, to ask them about their prayer. As he quizzed the three, they were increasingly confused. He asked them if they prayed Morning and Evening Prayer. No, they did not, they said. Did they pray the great prayers of the Church? Well, they weren’t sure, they said. The bishop asked them if they at least prayed the Lord’s Prayer. No, they said, they didn’t think they knew that one. Finally, the bishop became frustrated and asked them, well, then, how do you pray? They look at each other, and then at the bishop, and one said, “We simply say to God, ‘We are here. You are here. Thank you.’”

The bishop was not pleased. Who were these nuns to think that they could ignore thousands of years of Christian Tradition? So the bishop spent the rest of the day teaching the nuns various prayers. He taught them the Magnificat, the Nunc dimittis, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few others. Content that the nuns had learned these essential prayers, the bishop and his staff got back in to their boat and made their way across the water.

As the boat reached the very deepest point of the water, the bishop was shocked to see a very strange sight. There, walking on the water, coming towards the boat, were the elderly nuns. “Bishop,” they said, “We’re so sorry, but we forgot one of the prayers you were trying to teach us.” Looking at these three old holy women walking on the water, the bishop finally saw their faith, their love for God and their love for one another. He told them, “You know what, why don’t you just go back to your old prayers? They seem to be working just fine.”

Let us continue our prayers—prayers with Christ, prayers with one another, that God’s love may be multiplied and enjoyed throughout the world.

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

Thursday, May 06, 2010

What love looks like

Mendoza Madonna, All Souls Church

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2, 2010. The lectionary readings are Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, and John 13:31-35.

What does love look like?

At yesterday’s wedding, I met a young woman who was getting ready for the ceremony—she had bags and curlers and clothes and stopped for a break in our library room, just next to the church, where the acolytes put on their vestments. In that room, just over the fireplace, there is a large painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, holding the baby Jesus. The young woman wanted to ask me about the picture. “Why does Jesus look like so old? He almost looks like a little man,” she asked. I tried to remember something I had learned in art history years ago and bluffed my way forward talking about how I thought that in some pictures of the Madonna and Child, Jesus looks like an adult to remind us of his wisdom and of his timelessness as the Christ. It also reminds us that just as Mary holds and cares for Jesus no matter what, God also holds and protects and watches over us, no matter what age or condition or circumstance we find ourselves in. Love may look like a mother and child, or it may look like a loving parent holding a child of old age. “Cool,” she said, and went on looking for her curling iron.

That painting of the Blessed Virgin Mother and Jesus reminds me that love can look and feel different as we move from infancy through life. Sometimes there are experiences that jolt us into recognizing God’s love in places we might not have expected.

In our first scripture from the Acts of the Apostles, love turns out to look different from what Peter had expected. Peter gets into trouble because he’s come to understand that the love of God not only looks like Jesus coming to save the Jews, but it looks even bigger and broader than most people imagined: love encompasses all of God’s children.

The old thinking was that the messiah was to come only for Jews, but Peter begins to explain how God brought him to a new understanding. He tells them about his dream or vision. He saw what looked like a big sheet, coming down from heaven. And in the sheet were all sorts of animals-- four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, birds of the air. A voice said to Peter, “Get up, Peter, go and kill these things and eat them,” but Peter kept the dietary laws of a good Jew. There’s no way he could eat all those different things. It would be against his upbringing. It would be against his tradition. It would violate the sanctity of his religion. But the voice came again and told Peter, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” In other words, if God says it’s good, it’s good. The very next thing that happens is that this new insight of Peter is put to the test as he encounters Cornelius, who was a soldier. Cornelius has also been prepared for Peter by a vision, and after they talk, Cornelius is converted. Cornelius and his entire household receive the Holy Spirit and are baptized.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Earlier in this same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus has joined his friends to celebrate the Passover meal. But before they eat together, Jesus does this radical display of hospitality and he washes their feet. The Gospel describes what Jesus is about to do by saying, “It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the last.” That last phrase can also be translated that Jesus “showed them the full extent of his love.” That “full extent” point to his dying on the cross, but it also includes the ways in which Jesus gave of himself, the ways in which he showed us what love looks like, during his life.
We had a week’s worth, if not a life’s worth of looking at what love looks like just about a month ago in the liturgies of Holy Week. We saw it on Maundy Thursday as we set up a chair and a bowl, and we washed feet. During the foot washing, the choir sang anthems and the antiphon repeated throughout comes from the thirteenth chapter of John: “I give you a new commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.”

This past Holy Week, we continued our tradition of inviting twelve volunteers from the congregation. The priest washes the people’s feet. And while this has some symbolism, (of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet), it misses the main point of the Gospel. The point is that we should show this love to each other, not simply remember how Jesus did it. And so next year (here’s a warning), we will invite people to come forward sit at one of the chairs and wash the feet of the person who comes next.

Like me, some of you may have participated in this kind of foot washing in other churches. One comes forward and kneels before the other person. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But we look for Christ in that person and there is something of Christ that indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easy part, the washing of the other person’s feet.

Jesus asks us to love one another, and he does so in the context of the washing of feet and the Last Supper. Those are things we use as spiritual practices—the washing of the feet only once a year, but the celebration of Holy Communion, weekly or more often.

But these remind us of what it means to love like Jesus loves.
In some places, the first Sunday in May is used as a special day for honoring the love of God as reflected in the Blessed Virgin Mary. Special hymns are sung. Children sometimes place a crown of flowers on the head of the Blessed Virgin. May is the month of Mary, traditionally. One way that many people have come to know the love of Christ is by thinking about that simple, yet profound love, of a mother for a child—a special mother and a very special child. We honor Mary who helped teach Jesus the meaning of love, the cost of love, the danger of love. It was she who stood by him in love when he was crucified, and who helped spread his love to the other disciples and to all she encountered.

Mary’s love for Jesus began when she said Yes to God. Like her, we can say “yes” as we allow God to teach us what love looks like. We can follow Jesus even when we’re not sure of what lies ahead. And we can continue to lead others to him, pointing to where he has gone, saying, “watch him, do what he says, follow him, and love like him.”

What does love look like? It looks like Mary gazing on her son. It looks like Jesus washing feet. It looks like the sharing of the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. And it looks like all the countless ways that God leads us to serve one another. Love looks like us being faithful.

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


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