Sunday, June 26, 2011

Communion of Saints by Ira Thomas

A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 26, 2011. The readings for a Mass "of the Holy Eucharist" are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 116:10-17, Revelation 19:1-2a, 4-9, and John 6:47-58.

Today we celebrate Corpus Christi Sunday. Corpus Christi is the Latin term for Body of Christ, and it is a day that takes place in many churches on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday or on the Sunday following. I love this Sunday because it’s a celebration of food! It’s a celebration of food that is blessed by God. And it’s a celebration of food that comes from God.

The Old Testament Lesson recalls the time when the Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness, they became tired and irritable, and God fed them with manna. In the words of the psalmist, “[God] rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven.” “So,” the psalmist says, “mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.” (Psalm 78:24-25).

But there was a problem. The manna was only for that day, a one-day-only special. It was daily manna and needed to be consumed or it would spoil. If they left it out it became wormy. If it remained in the sun, it melted. This is because the manna was food, but it was more than food. Manna was meant to be consumed with faith. It took faith to rely upon the Lord to lead through the wilderness. It took faith to go to sleep each night trusting that there would be manna for the morrow. Perhaps it’s from that old, ancient story that the prayer began to be formed that would pray for daily manna, or daily bread.

Biblical scholars sometimes point out that the Lord’s Prayer actually conveys this sense of praying for the bread for tomorrow.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer in which he explains that the word we translate as “daily” is a strange word in the Greek that hardly appears elsewhere in the Bible. He says, “It probably means daily, it probably means the stuff we need to survive, but at least some people in the early church understood it to mean the bread we want for tomorrow or even the bread of tomorrow; ‘give us today tomorrow’s bread’.” He goes on to suggest that this means, “give us now a taste of the bread we shall eat in the Kingdom of God. Give us a foretaste of that great banquet and celebration where the universe is drawn together by Christ in the presence of God the Father.” Williams connects this with Holy Communion. “Communion is, at one level, bread for today, [but] it’s [also] very much our daily bread, it's the food we need to keep going; but it's also a foretaste of the bread of heaven, a foretaste of enjoying the presence of Jesus in heaven at his table at his banquet …” (Rowan Williams, in an article that appears on the BBC Christianity web site , accessed June 26, 2011.)

Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “The one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that [one] may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, they will live for ever.”

By taking into ourselves the Body of Christ, we become one with Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. Communion happens to us. Communion overtakes us. Communion is God moving toward us and inviting us closer. Communion is our reaching out toward one another and even reaching beyond the church into the world.

Bread for today is a gift. Bread for tomorrow is our prayer. We are called to live with hope and with faith for whatever is ahead. And that’s not always easy.

There are many in this room who are grieving. A friend of this parish, Joy LaChelle Bailie, died on June 11 at the age of 38. She had given birth to a beautiful little girl, Alora Ann, on June 1. There are no words …

On Thursday night, Nancye Suggs died. Nancye was a longtime parishioner, a great mother and friend to pretty much everyone she met, much of the heart and soul of this place, has died. Again, we don’t have words to say, and in many ways, we’re just not sure what to do.

Nancye and Joy LaChelle didn’t know each other in this life, but my vision of heaven has tells me that they’ve met, by now. They must be amused that so many people they cared about are in the same room. They’re laughing. If they weren’t in heaven they’d still be worrying about us and how we’re getting along, but where they are, they can see the long run and they know we’ll be ok, partly because they taught us a few things, and they’re cheering us on. They know God’s got us covered. They’re talking about us. They’re talking about the people they knew and loved, the places they lived and visited. And by now, I’m sure they’ve had at least one discussion about where to get the best cheesecake.

And so, what do we do? We do what people have done since the beginning of time when someone died. We share bread. We share a cup. We share the precious gift of life.

But at church, we share special bread and a special cup. Because it is bread for tomorrow as well as bread for today. God invites us to have the faith to believe that when tomorrow comes, we will have what we need. God will give us the resources we need—the strength, the patience, the tenacity, the love, the imagination, the creativity, the breath… to get through the day.

We have problems that seem unsolvable, worries that seem debilitating, but with tomorrow’s bread, God can give us new answers, creative solutions, and deeper insight. God gives us one another. God gives us God’s very Self.

On this Corpus Christi, Jesus reminds us of the Communion that matters more than any other—the union with him, through his Body and Blood. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

The old hymn says, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
born of his Spirit, washed in his blood.

That hymn was written by Fanny Crosby in 1873. Though she was blind, she could see heaven, and she could see God’s love for her and for all of creation. The refrain of that great hymn sings

This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;

This is our story. This is our song. This is indeed blessed assurance.

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Holy Trinity as Laughter

A sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 19, 2011. The lectionary readings are Genesis 1:1-2:4a , Psalm 8 , 2 Corinthians 13:11-13 , and Matthew 28:16-20 .

On Trinity Sunday, preachers everywhere struggle with images that might help us all understand what it means when we say we believe in God as a kind of “holy triple threat.” We say that we believe in God in three persons, but still, mysteriously One God.

In the past, I’ve talked about the bumbling priest in the movie, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and his confusion of God as “father, son, and holy spigot.” I’ve explored, on several occasions, the early church’s concept of God’s “perichoresis,” of God’s “dancing around,” as the Holy Trinity, God’s great movement as God’s own “great dance.” But today I want to borrow an image from Meister Eckhart, the 13th century monk and mystic, who talked about the laughter of God. He asked,

Do you want to know what goes on in the core of the Trinity?
I will tell you. In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son. The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit. The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us. (Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, 1983).

I think we can hear echoes of God’s laughter throughout scripture. Genesis says that whenever God spoke, something was created. “God said…” and it happened. To the extent that I can put human features to God, I can imagine God being absolutely delighted with everything that is made—with each new thing (creeping, crawling, climbing, growing), God sits back and smiles and chuckles a little bit. “Well, I’ll be… Look what I’ve done NOW.”

St. Paul, in his parting words to the church in Corinth, is effusive with emotion. “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” even as all the saints in heaven and on earth greet you. The kingdom of God is upon you, you proclaim it as you live it out, as you laugh it out, as you fall more deeply in love with God and come to know God’s deep love for you and the world.

And then, in the Gospel, it doesn’t say the disciples laughed in the face of Jesus (such a thing would then, as now, seem inappropriate to write down in scripture—even though we all do it). But I bet they did laugh, perhaps out of nervousness, perhaps out of disbelief, because Jesus is sending them out with this great and grand commission. He’s putting them to work baptizing and spreading the Gospel, and it must have seemed completely undoable, impossible, like the worst kind of joke. As a punch line not to be forgotten, Jesus adds, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I can imagine the disciples wanting to believe it, but at some level imagining, “Yeah, right. You’re going to leave us in just a minute or two, just like you’ve done before. And then we’ll be alone, and we’ll have to work things out by ourselves.” And so the disciples might have gone on, like we sometimes go on, forgetting that Jesus has given them and us his spirit—his Holy Spirit, that comes down and fills the disciples on Pentecost, that inflames us with the love of God at our baptism, and that is present and among us whenever we pray, whenever we attend to the Spirit, whenever we ask.

God laughs. Some of you may be familiar with the Yiddish proverb, “We plan, God laughs.” Sherre Hirsch wrote a book with that title and though it often feels just like that, she wonders if perhaps God doesn’t sometimes plan, and we laugh at God. She points out how God gave Adam and Eve just one rule, and they laughed at it and disobeyed. Cain laughed at the idea of true brotherhood, and killed Abel.

Moses and God were busy creating a future for the people of Israel, but the people of Israel were busy laughing (and partying and generally acting out). Like kids playing, the children of Israel’s laughter got out of hand, and the Ten Commandments got broken. And then there’s Sarah and Abraham. Sarah laughs at God’s news that she might have a child even in her old age. Isaac (whose name means laughter) is born, and so, we see, as Hirsch writes
God has a sense of humor. With the birth of Isaac, God claimed the true meaning of laughter. Laughter was possibility, not mockery. Laughter came to represent joy, creation, love, faith, and passion. The tradition teaches that on the day Isaac was born there was so much of this new laughter in the world that women who had previously been barren gave birth.

People who had been sick were healed. On that day, the day of Isaac’s birth, the world was filled with true joy. It was filled with laughter. (We Plan, God Laughs by Sherre Hirsch Copyright, Doubleday, 2008).

Laughter can sound harsh sometimes, when we’re not in on the joke. Laughter can be confusing, when we misunderstand its intent. But laughter can be freeing, and healing, and transforming—especially when it comes from God. One of the best things about laughter is the way it is infectious—it spreads, and enlivens, and enlarges, because, I think, it connects us to God again.

Again, Meister Eckhart says,
In the core of the Trinity the Father laughs and gives birth to the Son.
The Son laughs back at the Father and gives birth to the Spirit.
The whole Trinity laughs and gives birth to us.

May the love of God, in all of its confusing, yet embracing Threeness, help us to be faithful, keep us strong, and make us laugh. Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Being Pentecostal

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, June 12, 2011. The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21 , 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 , Psalm 104:25-35, 37, and John 20:19-23.

When I was in high school, there were two girls in our classes who always wore long skirts. Their hair was very long—it seemed like they never cut it, but either wore it tied back, or fastened in a bun of some kind. They never wore makeup, and everyone knew (or my friends, at least knew) that Lisa and Lori were from a Pentecostal family. For a while, I thought that these two girls and their families were what Pentecostal looked like. Until I became friends with Rachel.

Rachel’s father was a Pentecostal minister, but Rachel wore makeup, was a cheerleader at high school, and her whole family seemed like most other people, except that their church was a called a Church of God, and their belief was that one is baptized by water, but one is also baptized by the Holy Spirit, and that second baptism causes one to speak in tongues. Others are given the gift of interpreting tongues. And so, knowing Rachel and her family, who were very modern but also spoke in tongues—I thought they were what Pentecostals looked like.

That word, Pentecostal, has to do with the Day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate today. The “pente” of Pentecost is just like the “pente” of Pentagon. It means five. And Pentecost is the day that is fifty days after Easter. Originally, this coincided with the Jewish feast of weeks, or Shavuot. As we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, that fiftieth day after Easter was when the Holy Spirit appeared to the disciples in a strange and dramatic way. They were overcome by something, and they were changed.

The Acts passage says that the apostles received a gift of tongues, that each one could hear others speaking in a language that made sense to each. And while that is no small thing, there are other places in scripture that talk about the gifts of the spirit. The spiritual gifts go far beyond the ability to speak in tongues or understand another’s tongue. Pentecostalism is the religious movement that highlights the gifts of the Spirit, but especially the gift of tongues, and arose especially in the late 19th century, as a movement of evangelical revival in Great Britain and in the United States. Pentecostals are the people who participate in this movement, like my friends I mentioned in the beginning of this sermon.

But there are other spiritual gifts. In his First letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes a fuller picture. There are varieties of gifts [ Paul says] but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.

As I’ve grown in my own faith, and especially as I’ve grown in my own experience of the Church and Christians who populate the Church, I’ve changed my mind about what a Pentecostal looks like.

As I reflect on MY experience of the Holy Spirit in the Church, I see what Paul is talking about. There are those with gifts of tongues, but I have been witness to that gift being manifest through languages that others don’t understand. Instead, I think of the teacher I know who is able to put complex thought into simple language, so that it can be understood. I think of the person who always has just the right word of grace to speak—which brings peace, brings healing, and brings hope. I think of the person who can speak the truth in the midst of cloudy gibberish, like the Word of God we hear about in scripture “Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

When I hear Paul’s description of spiritual gifts, I think of those who work for the “common good,” as Paul puts it. And there are those who participate in miracles—not just miracles of healing (and they do happen-- sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly). Yesterday as I watched the huge group in the Pride Parade known as PFLAG march down streets in Washington, I saw miracles. PFLAG stands for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays—and of course, they have grown beyond their acronym to include the families and friends of transgender persons, bisexuals, and any one else who dares to come out as being different from the norm. These people represent families that have come through surprise, sometimes alarm, sometimes disappointment that their child is different from what they first imagined—these families have continued to be based on love, and encouragement, and strength. That’s what “being Pentecostal” looks like to me.

Being Pentecostal is why All Souls marches in the Pride Parade and why we have a booth at the Pride Festival today—it’s to witness to these gifts of the Holy Spirit that come not to the perfect, not to the holy, not to the elect, not to the professionally religious (the clergy), not to the poor, not to the rich, not to the straight, and not to the gay, but TO ALL GOD’S CHILDREN.

Being Pentecostal is why this church is named All Souls. It’s why we welcome and encourage everyone. It’s why refuse to give easy answers about the big questions of the day, why we live by simple faith in the midst of baffling complexity. It’s why we look into the face of death and proclaim LIFE.

On this day, we celebrate the coming of God’s Holy Spirit in surprising and startling ways. The spirit stirs and sings. The spirit crashes and calms. The spirit tears down what is old, or broken, or dead in order to make room for new life:for energy, hope, and resurrection. Let us be open to God’s Holy Spirit and let us be faithful Pentecostals.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

An Ascended View of Things

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, June 5, 2011. The lectionary readings are Acts 1:6-14 , Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, and John 17:1-11 .

In this morning’s first reading we hear about the Ascension of Jesus. Always observed 40 days after Easter, Ascension was celebrated at All Souls and in Christian churches throughout the world on Thursday morning.

Jesus has ascended into heaven.
We say this each time we repeat the Nicene Creed.

And we hear about the Ascension again from this morning’s first reading. We hear how Jesus was taken from his disciples, taken up in the mystery of a cloud, and he left them.

He was lifted up. He was raised up, he was exalted. Not only is this an extension of his being lifted up on the cross for our sake, but really, it’s an image that explains the way Jesus sees others through the Gospels. And it’s a way that describes how Jesus enables US to see others.

His whole life, Jesus seems to view people from another perspective, from the perspective of his father in heaven. Though Jesus is among people—he walks the streets, the breathes the same dust, he eats the same food, in a hug or an embrace he the touches and holds the same human flesh; he never loses that ability to SEE from another point of view.

Throughout, he seems to operate from a different height. He sees things others don’t see. And he does not spend much time looking close-up at some of the things that the religious leaders of his day took great pains to stare at, dwell upon and magnify.

Jesus looked at people differently. When Zaccheus the tax collector approached Jesus, the other people saw Zaccheus as a horrible little man, a cheat, a swindler, and a sell-out to the Romans. But Jesus saw Zaccheus as a child of God. Jesus made no excuses for Zaccheus, but he called him to a new way of life.

The woman accused of adultery was seen by the crowd as no good, beyond being helped, with no self-respect and no sense of morality. But Jesus saw her differently, he saw her not by romanticizing her victimhood, but by calling out of her the very best that she could become.

With almost everyone he encounters, Jesus sees with God’s eyes, as though from a higher place. All the while, Jesus remains rooted, feet firmly on the ground, noticing even the lowly and the earthbound.

Through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has opened for us the way to heaven. With his Spirit in us, we, with the Grace of God, we too can catch a glimpse of his perspective.

This morning, we baptize Michael Wadsworth, just like we baptized William two years ago. As we celebrate his baptism, remember, and give thanks for our own baptisms, we can reflect on how the baptismal water buoys us up. It lifts us up out of sin and death, and helps us to stand and run, and LIVE. Through baptism we are sealed with the knowledge that we are more than what we may appear. We are more than how we look, or how we talk, or what we know, or how we perform, or how much money we make, or how many friends we have, or what a good spouse or parent or child we are. We are lifted up above all of that by the love of Christ and we can view ourselves, even, from an ascended place; from a higher place.

What would it be like if we lived day to day, with the ability to see other people not in their failures and shortcomings, but in their potential? What would it be like for us to see ourselves, not the way we felt in elementary school, but as God sees us, not denying our faults, but seeing them in the context of our potential as children of God, capable of love that changes the world?

Austin Farrer, an English theologian who died in the 1960’s, writes of the ascension of Jesus by first reminding us of another ascension into heaven, the ascension of Elijah the prophet. It was Elijah who was thought to have ascended into heaven on the crests of flaming horses, horses on fire.

But with Jesus, the flame that carried him into heaven is what Farrer calls the “flame of Christ’s own sacrifice.” Look at the flame of a candle, he says, the flame always is drawn upward.

“All his life long Christ’s love burnt towards the heart of heaven in a bright fire, until he was wholly consumed in it, and went up in that fire to God. The fire is kindled on our altars, here Christ ascends in fire; the fire is kindled in the Christian heart, and we ascend. He says to us, Lift up your hearts; and we reply, We lift them up unto the Lord.” [The Crown of the Year, p. 34.]

In Holy Baptism we bless water with the Pascal Candle, a candle whose light begins at the Easter Vigil, with the first promise of resurrection. We give the baptized person a special candle—a candle that might be lit every year on the anniversary of his baptism, if he wants—and with that light, we say, “You have been enlightened by Christ. Walk always as a child of the light and keep the flame of faith alive in your heart.”

As we lift our hearts to God, it is especially appropriate that we claim for ourselves the full power of the Ascension. We can ask God to lift us up higher, to give us a new perspective on one another, to see ourselves more like God sees us, and finally, to be lifted into the very presence of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost.


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