Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lightening Up in Time for Summer

The Altar Party waits for the congregation to process out of the church for the Blessing of the Seersucker, June 5, 2011.

On Sunday, June 3 we will celebrate Trinity Sunday in all of its complexity and depth.  We will approach through prayer and song, what the Athanasian Creed describes as, “the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.”  There will be plenty of incense, lots of candles, and extraordinary music.
But at the conclusion of the 11 a.m. Mass, we will lighten things up with our Second Annual Blessing of the Seersucker.  This brief service is our take on the “kirking” or blessing of the tartans, celebrated by Washington National Cathedral, the City of Alexandria, VA, and others.  While tartans may represent ancestral links with Britain for some, we think that seersucker might better represent our clan, especially as we struggle through a hot D.C. summer and still try to look nice. 

Seersucker is thought to have been introduced to the American South through British colonial trade, sometime in the second half of the 19th century. In 1907 a New Orleans tailor made the first seersucker suit.  He called the lightweight, pale blue and white striped rumpled cotton fabric "seersucker" from the Persian words for "milk" and "sugar.” The suits became popular because they kept their good looks through the multiple washings they received during the summer.   

Seersucker is a familiar fabric in Washington.  In 1996, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi launched Seersucker Thursday, aiming to "bring a little Southern charm to the Capitol" and to remind the Senate of how Senators dressed before the advent of air conditioning in the 1950s.  In 2004, Senator Dianne Feinstein decided to increase participation by encouraging women senators to follow the tradition. The following year 11 of the 14 women senators appeared on Seersucker Thursday in outfits received as gifts from Feinstein.        

At All Souls we take some things very seriously: the beauty of holiness in worship, justice for all God’s children, the power of healing, prayer, and the sacraments; but we try not to take ourselves too seriously.  Especially this Sunday, as we ask God’s blessing on our seersucker and the coming season, may we also ask God to strengthen us in humor and in love. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Holy Water and Us

"Untitled": Children filled with happiness playing in the water. Brazil.
Photo and caption by Seth Solo/People/National Geographic Photo Contest

A sermon for the Day of Pentecost, May 27, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104: 25-35,37, Romans 8:22-27, and John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15.

Some years ago I was on a retreat day with a small group of people.  It was in late Lent, not long before Easter.  At the end of the day, the priest who was leading the retreat brought us together in a room that had a large table.  We sat at the table, like we were going to share a big meal, but there was no food.  There was just a clear, glass pitcher of water and a small bowl of salt.  The priest explained that during the day we had shared various stories.  We had been reminded of the stories Jesus told.  During the day, our thoughts and prayers had been guided by those stories, and especially with the ways in which they resonated with our lives.  So, now, the priest explained, each of us was invited to pass around the pitcher and bowl of salt.  Each was to take a pinch of the salt, put it in the water, and tell a “sad story.”  In other words, we were invited to share a story that had made us sad, or scared us, or hurt us.

We went around the room and did just that.  One person spoke of loss through death.  Another talked about her business going bankrupt.  (I recall that I was not willing to be as deeply honest as some people, and so I told about the time I had a bad case of pinkeye, and how that has continued, over the years to affect my vision in one eye.  It’s more of an occasional nuisance than anything else, but it visits on occasion reminding me of aging, of mortality, and of weakness. )

Once we had gone around with a sad story, the priest then asked us to go around again.  This time, we were to take a pinch of salt, toss it into the water, and tell a joyful story—a story that made us happy, or filled us with hope, or showed us a quick insight into the love of God.  Those stories flowed more freely and before long the room was filled with a different mood. There was laughter.  There were a few tears again, and there was gladness. When the bowl of salt and the pitcher of water came back to the priest, he very quietly stood up.  He placed a stole around his neck and invited us to stand and to pray.  He led us in old and ancient words:

O God, who art the Author of unconquered might, the King of the Empire that cannot be overthrown, the ever glorious Conqueror: who dost keep under the strength of the dominion that is against thee; who rulest the raging of the fierce enemy; who dost mightily fight against the wickeness of thy foes; … we beseech thee graciously to behold this creature of salt and water, mercifully shine upon it, hallow it with the dew of thy lovingkindness: that wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, with the invocation of thy holy Name, all haunting of the unclean spirit may be driven away; far thence let the fear of the venomous serpent be cast; and wheresoever it shall be sprinkled, there let the presence of the Holy Spirit be vouchsafed to all of us who shall ask for thy mercy.  Through Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

At the conclusion of the prayer the priest looked at us and said simply, “your stories—your stories of sadness and of joy, your tears and your laughter, have all been used by the Holy Spirit to make this water holy.  This water will be used at our next baptism.  It will be used to splash people with as a reminder of their baptism.  It will used quietly by those who dip their finger in and make the sign of the cross with it.  Remember that the Holy Spirit uses us to make water and the world holy.”

The salt is made holy.  The water is made holy.  We are made holy.

Since its discovery in primeval times, salt has been used for its curative and preventive qualities.  Just as it keeps away bad things from invading food, so salt was early on thought to help in warding off bad spirits.  The Early Church used salt when a candidate began the catechumenate, the process toward baptism.  In some places it is still used around baptism and is known by the wonderful word, “exsufflation,” which included blowing the catechumen’s face, as well as putting salt on the tongue.  As salt is put on the tongue, the priest says, "Satisfy him or her with the Bread of Heaven that he or she may be forever fervent in spirit, joyful in hope, zealous in your service."  Salt on the tongue symbolizes the prayer of the church that the faith that is infused at Baptism will be kept strong, distinct, and keep its edge, mindful of Jesus’ words, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot" (Matt. 5:13).

The theological word for God making us holy is a word we don’t hear much: sanctification.  But it’s a word that is still promised and made complete in God by the work of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is like a woodworker who slowly, lovingly, carefully sands the edges off a rough piece of wood, eventually revealing the wood’s truest beauty and purpose.  Sanctification is like a cook who adds a little of this, has a taste; adds a little of that; has a taste; and on and on, until the food is just right.  Sanctification is like the slow, patient work of water that carves its way through rock over years, over decades, over centuries.  Sanctification happens as our stories—the sad, the happy, the embarrassing, the horrible, the sentimental, the mundane—our individual and unique stories are brought into the story of God’s saving grace for the world.  The story of God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus, of his dying and rising again, of his living out what love can look like—this becomes mixed up with our story, so that as we grow towards God, it’s impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. 

In just a few minutes, Anthony will be baptized.  Even though he’s young, he already has stories that he will bring to the baptismal font with him.  He has all kinds of stories: sad and happy. He has stories about his parents, his wider family, his friends, maybe his pets.  With the Holy Spirit and with the story that is, and is to be Anthony, holiness will begin its tale—extending the action, thickening the plot, adding characters, and developing new themes of love and faithfulness.  

We and Anthony return to the baptismal font.  We can return every time we walk in a church, but we can return in our prayers, as well, to claim again and again “I am baptized.  I belong to God and God is making me holy.” 

May God continue to draw us into the story of salvation, so that we may never forget that the Holy Spirit uses us to make the water (and the world) holy.

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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Soapy Spirit of Pentecost

The Last Supper (Dove) by Andy Warhol, 1986.

I return again and again to the religious art of Andy Warhol.  I like the way he plays with images and ideas that were familiar to him from his Ruthenian Catholic upbringing in Pittsburgh.  Spiritual symbols are interspersed with objects commercial and secular.  The effect is jarring, but it often opens me to new insights about God.

Warhol bases a number of paintings on the famous Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. In one, the Holy Spirit is represented not by wind, or fire, or a mysterious light.  Instead, the Spirit shows up as the icon from Dove soap. Jesus is shown in his customary spot in the middle of the disciples at a long table, but there, hovering just over his head is that iconic symbol from the soap.  To underscore the point, Warhol includes the curvy, trademarked word in soapy script: Dove.      

There are many ways to interpret Warhol’s juxtaposition of the sacred and profane.  Some suggest Warhol is criticizing the cheapening of religious images.  He is pointing out how easy it is for us to confuse a deep, symbolic, religious idea with a shorthand symbol of that idea. While I think this is an important part of Warhol’s message, I especially appreciate the way he makes a biblical connection by mixing the Holy Spirit with soap. 

At the baptism of our Lord, the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus “like a dove.”  Ever since, religious art has used the dove to represent the Spirit and brings with it layers of religious meaning.  It reminds us of the dove of hope and promise that Noah sent out to search for dry land after the flood.  It represents God’s chosen people Israel, as in the Book of the Prophet Hosea. Dove soap mixed with the Spirit reminds us that at baptism, we are washed clean.   

As we celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism on this Day of Pentecost, we could give soap bars as reminders of our baptism.  (But we won’t).  We will, however, remember our own baptisms, giving thanks that the Holy Spirit continues to cleanse us and renew us. The Spirit washes away the past and restores us for new faithfulness.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Moving the Big Candle

Thoughts for Ascension Day, May 17, 2012.

On Holy Saturday we began our celebration of the Resurrection with the lighting of a new Paschal Candle.  (Pascha is a Latinized version of the Hebrew word for Passover, so that “paschal” becomes an adjective used to describe something that has to do with the Christian Passover, Easter.)  For forty days at All Souls, our Paschal Candle remains lit in the front of the church, reminding us of the risen Christ among us.

But on the fortieth day after Easter, Ascension Day, we follow an old custom by extinguishing the Candle just after the Gospel is read.  We hear how Jesus walked with his disciples as far as Bethany, blessed them, and then “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).  Some churches keep their candle burning through the Ascension and extinguish it on Pentecost.  While this extends the Easter season more fully, I wonder if we don’t miss an important insight if we pass too quickly over the Ascension.  The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost can help us to keep faith as we watch, wait, and pray for the Spirit to come in new ways.

I don’t think the Ascension is meant to be understood as Jesus being blasted into heaven like a rocket, or being carried gently by angels, or riding on a carpet of clouds.  Jesus ascended “up” into the heart, mind, and soul of God.  He ascended into the fullness of God.  But however the Ascension happened, it left the disciples without Jesus.  It was like a light had been put out.  They must have been confused, disappointed, and more than a little afraid.  To deal with this in-between time, I imagine the disciples talked with each other, asked questions, and prayed.  In other words, they did the same things that we do whenever we feel as though we’re in the middle of something but can’t quite see the way out, whenever we feel bereft of God. 

Several years ago on a day soon after the Ascension, I recall a child in church saying to her parents, “Somebody moved that big candle.”  We have moved the big candle and its light might have shifted, but God never leaves us alone.  With faith and prayer, we continue to reflect on Easter even as we expectantly await the renewal of the Holy Spirit’s presence and power among us on Pentecost.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Loving from the Heart of God

LOVE, by Robert Indiana, New York City

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 13, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, and John 15:9-17.

I have a friend who greets today with enormous relief.  Earlier in the week, he was in trouble.  He’s been married for just under a year and his in-laws have not immediately welcomed him into the family.  My friend’s wife casually suggested that he send a special mother’s day card to his new mother-in-law.  A little worried before he went to the store, he was even more worried after seeing the card selections.  Though there were obvious headings, “from both of us,” “from son-in-law,” headings more fitting might read, “sappy, sentimental, religious, mushy, cold, detached, formulaic, ethnic,” and some that could only be described as “vulgar.”  From the aisle of the card shop he made reservations at a restaurant and hoped his wife would understand. 

But the question lingered for him:  What did he feel for his mother-in-law?  “Love” is too strong a word.  He doesn’t dislike her, and he hopes to love her one day, but that’s not how he would name the feeling after ten months of being her son-in-law.  Would “affection” be appropriate?  What about “duty,” or “kindliness?”  Being a lover of language, he thought about the word “amity,” as being just the right word, but unless he wanted to sound like a Victorian, he’d better not use that one.  WWJS, he laughed to himself—“What would Jesus send?” 

Various “loves” find their way into our worship today.  The scriptures speak of love, but it’s a love of a very particular kind. Many of you have probably heard before that scripture talks about different kinds of love, especially in the Greek New Testament. These are different kinds of love that lose their distinctions when they are translated into English and are all simply described as “love.”   There’s romantic, passionate love.  There’s love that is dispassionate and virtuous.  There’s love like a parent has for a child.  And then there’s unconditional love.  It’s all as complicated as the headings of the greeting card section, if you think about it.   

In today’s Gospel Jesus says, “Love one another.” It sounds simple, even as it sounds overwhelming. I realize the words seem impossible when I begin to be honest and admit that I don’t always like everyone. Some people are difficult. I can try to see the good in some people and even try to pretend I feel something charitable towards them, but before long, such feeling become the stuff of confession, as I feel defeated, hypocritical, and dishonest. We read that the earliest Christians were known by the love they showed for each other and then we look at our church or denomination or the fragmented state of Christianity, and—again, we can easily feel defeated, as we measure ourselves against that earlier ideal.  I recall our former senior warden, Nancye Suggs, who often said, “I know Jesus tells me to love my neighbor, but sometimes I can only do that from across the street.”

Love wasn’t always so straightforward for Jesus.  Especially in John’s Gospel, there is a lot of complexity around this idea of love. John uses different words to talk about love—there is the love that is really more of a simple affection for someone. There is another kind of love that has to do with brotherly love or sisterly love. There is eros, (not really erotic, in the way our culture uses it), but eros is the romantic love that involves feeling, romance, and a kind of longing.

And finally there is the love John talks about most for Christians, the love of agape.

Jesus doesn’t call us to feel eros toward everyone we meet. We are not created for, nor expected to feel warm fuzzies every time we encounter someone. He calls us, he commands us, to love one another, but he commands us to love with agape love.

Agape love describes an attitude. This agape love has to do with a willingness to yield to the other, a kind of availability for others.  In full expression, it has to do with giving of one’s life in sacrifice for another. Agape seeks to serve others and moves out of oneself into the realm of others—quite honestly, whether we like them or not.

This agape love is powerful stuff because it begins with God, not with a good feeling you or I might have. God gave himself to the world. God’s love came to live with humanity in the work and person of Jesus. That love of his has been let loose in the world making it possible for that same love to move through us, if we let it.

This is the love of God moving through us, and it has nothing to do with how nice I am, or how holy I am, or even how good we might be--- it is the pure and perfect love of God that flows through us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Agape love doesn’t even depend on the object of its loving power. This kind of love loves the other person not because they are worthy or good or in any way inspire love, but simply because it is the nature of God’s love to love. And that unloving person, by the grace of God’s love, can eventually be loved into being loving.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that when someone says, “Do you love me?” They’re really asking, “Do you see the same truth?” Or at least, “Do you care about the same truth, as I?” C. S. Lewis elaborates on this in his little book, The Four Loves. He points out that the person who goes through life simply looking for friends may never make any. This is because the very condition of making friends is that we should want something beyond the friendship. The friendship must be about something. Those who have nothing can share nothing, and those who are going nowhere can have no fellow-travelers. Lewis points out that when friendship is based on agape love, the friendship doesn’t depend upon the particulars of this person or that. We become friends without knowing or caring about whether a person is single or in a relationship, how the person earns a living, or where the person lives. The real question remains, “Do you see the same truth?” “Do you care about the same truth?” Lewis suggests that friendship based in agape love is a little like world leaders from independent states who meet on neutral ground. In the neutral space they are freed from their contexts. They are freed to be something new.

Jesus says, “Love one another.” The good news is that these words need not be terrifying, but freeing, as we come to realize that love (that is from God) does not depend on our mood, our senses, our opinions, our prejudices, or our attitudes. It depends upon our will. To love one another as Christ commands means that we wish and will the very best for each other.

Would Jesus send a greeting card?  I don’t know, but I do think that the love of Christ is usually more complicated than the card companies allow.  The love of Christ is not a kiss to be caught, but rather, a willingness to look beyond the self for a truth that can be shared. To love one another means to give of ourselves—our money, our talents, our minds, our hearts, and to give to others that they may be loved into loving. This is how we will be saved. This is how the world will be saved.

Thanks be to God for the love of Jesus Christ that moves through us, that changes us, that brings us to God.

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

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Abiding in God's Love (Weeds and All)

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, and John 15:1-8.

When I was about ten years old our family moved from Raleigh, N.C. to Charlotte.  The house we moved into had a big back yard.  At the very back, the yard ended with a sort of ledge overlooking a twisted, unruly creek.  The creek was on city property and was a part of a storm drainage system, so it had to be.  But like a lot of gardeners who look out at creation, my parents might have allowed that God created it, but it sure didn’t look like he was doing much in the way of up-keep.  So our family got to work.  We straightened out the creed a little, building up the banks and tried to encourage the native vegetation.  To keep back erosion, my mom transplanted a few things and moved things around, and then my father did an amazing thing.  As I recall him saying, “My father and grandfather would roll in their graves if they saw what I was about to do.”  And then, easily enough, Dad began to fertilize honeysuckle.

Generations of gardeners have fought this worthy enemy.  Though lon-icera peri-cly-men-um can sound nice enough, it’s still just low-down, dirty, invasive, uncontrollable honeysuckle to many.  It will take over a mailbox post.  It will completely smother out a vegetable garden or flower garden.  Along with its mutant cousin from you-know-where, kudzu, honeysuckle can take over a house.  But here my father was, fertilizing the stuff, because he knew it would take off.  He knew it would help to fill in the creek bank, prevent erosion, and please countless bees and butterflies, along the way.

In fertilizing a weed, my father was turning a negative into a positive.  He was using something that normally caused problems, made for heartache, and created chaos, and turning it into something for good. 

If we were a church that put catchy phrases on a signboard outside to lure people in for worship, the sermon in a nutshell, today’s might say something like this:  “Ours is a God who throws fertilizer on weeds.”

The Gospel, of course, puts it nicer.  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  Yes, there’s the pruning.  Yes, there’s the pulling up of the dead parts—sometimes, it’s more a yanking and we feel the pain of God’s good pruning for years.  But with eyes of faith, we look back and see the care of God, cleaning a way forward, strengthening what is strong in us, dispensing with the useless, and tending us with love and care so that we grow into a beautiful and long-lived thing.  As today’s communion motet puts it, “King Jesus hath a garden of divers flowers.”

The writer of the First Letter of John (whether that was John the Evangelist or someone from his community writing in his name) and our Gospel share the use of a funny, sort of old fashioned word.  In some ways it’s a word that suits a sermon about honeysuckle and hot summer days.  That old-fashioned word is the word, “abide.”  When is the last time you ever heard someone use that word?  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them,” we’re told.  And again, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

 The Oxford dictionary lists 17 uses for the word, “abide,” and out of 17, 8 are obsolete. The word seems to be of another time, almost forgotten. “To abide,” has to do with persevering, with continuing on, with lasting. It has to do with the stamina and the stomach of a thing, with persistence and with plugging away.
It is a rare word, but it is an even rarer thing. Not much seems to abide any more. Pension funds disappear. Business contracts are ignored. Relationships seem to crumble. Commitments are not honored. Little seems to abide.

While we may think our age is unique in its lack of abiding in anything, I wonder if it’s not because of the difficulty and demand of that word that John uses it. Remain in Christ, John is saying. Stay with him, stay in him, stay about him. Focus, trust, keep on. Even when tempted to turn away, even when you’re distracted, even when you’re tired or depressed or angry. Remain in Christ. Abide in him.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:4-5)
Abiding in Christ has to do with being a part of the vine, allowing God to prune and cut away whatever keeps us from his love, or keeps us from the kingdom of God. 

When we’re in trouble, abide.   Especially when we’re stuck, or worried, or in special need of God, we can call on this old idea and abide in God’s love. We may not think there’s any help for us.   Either we’re feeling a little weedy ourselves, or we’re feeling like some awful, invasive thing has taken us over.  We might feel like we’re at the bottom of a honeysuckle patch and there’s no light and little air.  Abide.  Wait it out.  God is there, tending.  God is here—the watching and careful gardener, clearing away what needs to be cleared, cutting away what needs to go, and making a way for continued growth.  Rest on others, who are strong today.  Rest on others who are faithful today.  Abide, and rest, on the strength of Christian community like this one.

Abide, also when you’re in full strength.  When everything is going well, when we’re strong, we should abide in God and abide in the vine of God’s loving community because not far from us, maybe right next to us, is someone who’s in trouble, who needs help, and who needs to support, the strength, and the love that we might be able to provide. 

“To abide” is to keep on, in bad times and in good times, and perhaps even more important for us is abiding in God’s love means staying the course even in those value-neutral, but tricky times when we’re busy.  Many of us ignore God not so much out of disbelief, or out of anger, but out of forgetfulness, as we get distracted.  But forgetting about God is a little bit like leaving for a vacation.  The weeds and vines keep growing and when we come back, or come back to ourselves, we see the garden if overrun.  Busyness can invade our peace, our prayer, and our sanity.  Abide. 

It is the first week of May and before too long, school will be ending, casual Fridays reappear, schedules will readjust.  There will be celebrations of graduation, anniversaries, weddings, and all kinds of other things.  But the doors of the church will be open and our programs continue. Faithfulness to Christ does not happen by accident. If your work routine changes, then adjust your spiritual life accordingly. If you plan to go out of town, spend some time on the internet and find a church to attend when you’re away. Take your Prayer Book with you. Take your Bible with you. I invite you to plan to be faithful, create disciplined ways of praying, of worshiping, of offering alms and charity and mercy to others.

Whether we’re feeling a little weedy, or perhaps this a time in life when we’re in full bloom, may Christ abide in our hearts and we abide with him, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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