Sunday, June 24, 2012

Safe Passage

The Road to Emmaus, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669

A sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 24, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32,  2 Corinthians 6:1-13, and Mark 4:35-41.

It’s the end of June and people are on the move. I sometimes wish that All Souls parishioners carried with them a kind of Global Positioning System—it could be tasteful, in the form or a cross one could wear, or something like that—and this GPS would let us know where you are.  And so, on days like this and those ahead, we could look at the monitor in the undercroft and see where everyone is.  There’s Sybil in Paris, Chuck and the others in Bagdad.  We have people in the mountains and at the beach—folks are traveling.

It’s that time of year for many people, and so it may be for all these reasons, that as I listen to the scripture readings for today, I hear in them a kind of travel narrative. In today’s readings there are accounts of people who have been places. They have seen things, and they have been changed.
In the very short reading from Job, God reminds Job that Job really has not been to as many places as he thinks. But God takes Job back.  But then in words and images God recounts to Job what it was like at the beginning, when God laid the very foundation of the earth. When God says to the very seas themselves, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed.’” No, for all Job’s experience, put in that context, he really hasn’t seen very much at all.

The Psalm of the day reminds us that the God of creation is after all the God of the Exodus, who is the very God who continues to save us, to lift us up, and to keep us steady. We can read Psalm 107 as a record of where we have been.  It’s a spiritual travelogue. Think of a time when you’ve felt overwhelmed, about to sink, as though the current of life is taking you way out into the deep and those words of the psalmist become very personal.  Eugene Peterson’s translation brings it home:
With a word [God] called up the wind--
an ocean storm, towering waves!
You shot high in the sky, then the bottom dropped out;
your hearts were stuck in your throats.
You were spun like a top, you reeled like a drunk,
you didn’t know which way was up.
[But] then you called out to [the Lord] …
[and] he got you out in the nick of time.
He quieted the wind down to a whisper,
[and] put a muzzle on all the big waves.  (The Message, Psalm 107)
At the beginning of today’s Gospel Jesus suggests a trip—it’ll be great!  There’s a light breeze.  It’ll be just fine. And so, he and the disciples set out over the Sea of Galilee. But as the darkness falls, the wind begins to whip and the waves start rocking. Before long they are in the middle of a storm, there is water in the boat, the disciples are panicked.
This trip across the Sea of Galilee quickly becomes the kind of travel story you hope you never have to tell—“Remember the time.” Remember that time in the storm. Remember that time when we got lost. Or even more tragic, remember that time when it felt like a storm and we lost someone we loved. The disciples are afraid and so they wake up Jesus who looks at them with surprise. He speaks and the storm is stopped. The disciples are stopped. Time is stopped. “Peace. Hush. Be quiet. Be still.”
The storm calms, but the disciples don’t calm down quite so fast. In some ways they become even more afraid. “Who is this,” they ask themselves. In a new way they make the connection between the God of the Universe, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and their friend Jesus, who (they can now see) has in him the very power of God. He has the power to calm storms, the power to heal. He has the power of life in him—they’ve seen it move out of him and into other people. They feel it now and they are afraid. It is not Kansas anymore. Nor Cana, nor Capernaum, nor anywhere else they’ve ever been.
Faith is movement. If we are in love with God, and or if we have the slightest bit of belief that God is in love with us—that love will change us. It moves us from place to place. I don’t know where this travel narrative of Holy Scripture intersects with your own movement today. It may be you’re in a good place, settled with your faith, confident with your relationship with God, collected in the midst of a sea of calm. Some of you are in that place: give thanks and draw strength from this time.
But for others, things may not be so calm.  It might be that you can identify more with those disciples in the middle of an angry sea, in a tiny boat, feeling like God must surely be asleep. If so, then hang on. The Jesus who goes with us wherever faith takes us has in him the full power of God—the power to overcome anything or anyone—any storm, confusion, disaster or disorder. God will prevail.
All kinds of storms come our way.  Family can sometimes blow through our lives like an unruly storm. Sometimes we feel adrift and in a boat all alone. At work the winds can pick up now and then and we feel under attack. In relationships, the seas are not always calm. Even our church seems sometimes to be moving into deep waters, feeling alone in our particular boat while other churches seem to prefer the safety of the land, or the assurance of charted waters. But our faith allows us to be like those first disciples: to hang on to each other for the ride, to stay close to God our savior, and to look ahead without fear.
W.H. Auden names well the landscape of our lives. Of Christ our travel guide, he writes

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
you will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
you will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love him in the World of the Flesh:
and at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

W. H. Auden For the Time Being (a Christmas Oratorio)
We don’t always pack the way we should.  We’ll forget things here and there.  The weather may change on us. As Anne Lamott has written, “The road to enlightenment is long and difficult, and you should try not to forget snacks and magazines.” (Traveling Mercies).

We have the little things that sustain, but even more, w
e have God our Savior surrounding us, leading us, pushing us, holding us, carrying us, loving us always and forever.

May we look out for each other along the way. May we enjoy the scenery and be strong and faithful travelers.
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

A Wedding on St. Etheldrada's Day

St. Etheldrada and Her Church

Jesus said, “You are salt to the world.  And if salt becomes tasteless, how is its saltness to be restored?  It is now good for nothing but to be thrown away and trodden underfoot. You are light for all the world.  A town that stands on a hill cannot be hidden.  When a lamp is lit, it is not put under the meal-tub, but on the lamp-stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.  And you, like the lamp, must shed light among your fellows, so that, when they see the good you do, they may give praise to your Father in heaven.  (Matthew 5:13-16, New English Bible)

Sara and Tom, I know why you chose this day to be married.  Some may think it was convenient with academic schedules and vacations.  Others might think it the most convenient day for your family.  One might even think it was the best time to get a good deal on flights.  But I know why you chose this day, and I want you to know how deeply moved I am.  Because I know that you chose this day not for personal or even familial reasons, but out of your deeply formed and carefully nurtured devotion to St. Etheldreda of Ely. 

No?  You say you’ve never heard of her?  Well, even so, her feast day, this day, this June 23, is a fine day for a wedding.  It’s a fine day to celebrate the love of two people and to place them high in our esteem and our hopes for long and happy future. 

Etheldreda was a 7th century woman of faith (who happened to be a queen of East Anglia) who found herself in a marriage that, we can simply say, was “not the best.”  She tried to remain true to herself and her God, and when this husband died, she moved herself and her family to the island of Ely. 

If you know that area of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, you’ll know that the area is covered with the fens, swampy wetlands that for centuries had eels in them, thus the name of the town, Ely.  Ely is on a hill and juts up majestically out of the fens.  Etheldreda founded a double monastery there and restored an old church, all of which is today the foundation of Ely Cathedral. 

Other than her unusual name, and this being her feast day, I mention Etheldreda because she did what our Gospel talks about doing.  She took her faith up a hill and found the strength and imagination and wherewithal to be a light for others to find comfort, to find refuge, to find the love of Christ. 

Sara and Tom, may you be emboldened by Etheldreda and the whole company of saints, martyrs, angels, archangels, as well as those saints who have been your family and friends but who live in this world no longer.  Be strengthened by the saints who surround you this day—the family and friends who will uphold you, strengthen you, and love you. 

You are light to all the world.  Your love is light to all the world.  Even though you may be apart for a while as school and jobs demand attention, let your light shine.  Let your love radiate and fill every place you go with a sure and certain sense that the Love of God has come, is here, and leads us into the future. 

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

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Seeing through Seeds

A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year B, Proper 6), June 17, 2012.  The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, and Mark 4:26-34.

On this first of the ordinary Sundays, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, our worship returns to a familiar pattern.  We again have a prayer of confession.  We use green on the altar and in the vestments.  The music and hymns lead us to think about God in all God’s majesty and mystery, in broad and sometimes general ways.  The Church continues to observe feast days here and there, almost like exclamation marks in the narrative of God’s love for us, but most of the Sundays through the summer offer us space to grow and develop, to think and mature in our faith. And especially in today’s scripture readings, there’s a lot that is growing.

In the first lesson, from Ezekiel, God doesn’t mess with seeds, but gardens like I do sometimes—he uses a seedling.  God takes a bit of cedar from the top of a tree, sets it down on a high hill, puts it in the ground and says a prayer over it, and then raises it up as a symbol of God’s might, God’s reign, God’s love, and God’s care.  Everyone will look at it and think, “God has made this.  God keeps it strong and alive. God will keep me strong and alive, too.” 

The Gospel has things growing, as well.  But here, seeds are sown. Seeds are slung.  They’re not so much planted as they are scattered.  They go all over the place and several different things happen. 

Our reading from Mark’s Gospel is a parable, or several parables.  One of the wonderful though sometimes confusing aspects of a parable is that the assigned characters shift around.  In other words, it’s not always clear where God is in the parable.  It’s not clear which character represents Jesus; if in fact any character is intended to be him.  This is why parables worked so well for Jesus and why we can hear them again and again, yet find new meaning in them. 

When we read or hear a parable, then, there’s an invitation for us to step inside and try on some of the different characters and attitudes. Which one speaks to us today?  Which one fits best?  Which one challenges and which one offer comfort?  We can look at both parables and wonder where we are. 

You may identify with the sower, the one who plants seeds and hopes for the best.  Whether seeds or seedlings, the intention is that they will grow.  If may be an idea or a practice or a project that you’re just beginning.  You do a little to get it started, but then it’s out of your hands.  It may be taken out of your hands, or other things may grow to overshadow your project—maybe there is the equivalent of a storm, or maybe the birds in your world eat up the seeds you’ve sown.  If you are the sower, you make an investment and then over time, you have to manage your relationship to the seeds you’ve planted.  How much will you try to control?  How much will you let go? 

Maybe you identify with the seed or the seedling.  You feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—maybe it’s fertile ground, or it could be rocky stuff.  Maybe you’re trying your best to put down roots and yet over and over again, something comes to move you along and keep you scattered.  You’re trying to find a foothold.  You’re trying to find something that will stay still long enough to enjoy the sun, to absorb the rain, to find the energy and life within yourself to grow, to expand, to become.  You might feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed.  Perhaps you have the idea of the mustard tree in your mind, but it seems so far off, and so far ahead, it’s hard to see how you might reach that place.

The sower and the seed are major characters in our reading, but there are also birds, birds that take shad.  Someone else had done the planting and the growing has already happened, and so we can enjoy what has been done, we can make a nest, take advantage of the shade, and enjoy the view. 

While one of these characters may speak to us more than another, the parables have to do with what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God is not so much a literal place as it is every place, every place where God’s intention is allowed to take root and grow.  The kingdom is full of mystery—it grows at its own rate.  Some parts can be planned, laid out, and organized.  But other areas of the kingdom are up to God’s own good grace—we have to let go.

To me, our Gospel today seems to call us to be witnesses who have faith.  To see and to believe.

It’s not so easy to see, to be a witness.  We have to be awake, to pay attention, to sort out what we think we’re seeing from what we actually see.  We compare our view with another person, and then together, come up with a glimpse of reality.  God is working in our world—around us, within us, in little things and in large things—it’s for us to take note, to observe, to see. 

The seeing is important and is connected with our believing, with our having faith—but sometimes what we see hinders faith as much as helps it.  We see pain and misery.  We see disease and violence and poverty.  We see a terribly distorted version of the world God has created.  But with eyes wide open, Jesus encourages us to have faith.  Have faith that seeds will find what they need to grow.  Have faith that growth will happen in God’s good time.  Have faith like that of the mustard seed, faith that might be tiny at first, but with God’s help grows into something that helps others.  Seeing is not always believing, but to believe is to begin to see clearly.

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians talks about walking by faith, not by sight.  He’s not so much opposing seeing and believing as he is pointing to the way of seeing deeply that involves faith. Paul warns about those who boast in outward appearance—see through that, Paul urges.  Christ died on the cross and to all appearances, so died the dream of God.  But for those with eyes to see, he has risen for us.  For those of us with eyes to see, to notice, to witness, our faith leads us further and as though we’re given enough to move forward through a fog, with more faith, we see more and move farther along. 

Though seeds in this world teach us about mystery, and patience, and surprise, growth in God happens with even more mystery.  This is because, as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.  Everything old has passed away, and the new has come alive.”

Friends, the kingdom of God unfolds around us and within us.  It’s our gift and charge to witness and to have faith. 

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

God, Our Clothing

A sermon for the blessing of a marriage, June 16, 2012.  The epistle reading mentioned is Colossians 3:12-17. 

The other day I was at a meeting with some colleagues. This being Washington in the summer, the room we were in was over-air-conditioned and absolutely freezing.  One person said, I need a sweater.  Another replied, somewhat archly, “Since we are church people, perhaps we should have prayer shawls at our next meeting.”  Finally, one friend who is holier and much better read than the rest of us said piously, “God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love.”

We all burst out laughing.  Some of us were familiar with the words, but couldn’t have told you who said them.  It turns out that our friend was quoting a wonderful Anglican saint and mystic of the 14th century, Julian of Norwich.  God gave Julian a vision, and Julian reflected and prayed on the meaning of that vision for the rest of her life.  Some twenty years after the vision, she reflected, “I saw that God is everything which is good and comforting for our help. God is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love, embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so tender that he may never desert us.”  (Showings, Long Text, Chapter 5)

God is our clothing—God wraps us round and enfolds us.  We hear this idea of clothing  in our second reading this afternoon, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. …Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” 

What a wedding garment that would be!  And think, for a minute about what such a garment would NOT be.

We’re not encouraged to clothe ourselves with a suit of armor.  In marriage, in relationship, we bring ourselves—our truest selves, if we’re to stand any chance at all of it being a real friendship, or a real love.

We’re not encouraged to put on the best and bravest, because those things—while beautiful—can also sometimes be a means of protection. 

And we’re not called to clothe ourselves with things that don’t fit.  I remember a wedding I attended a few years ago in which the groom wore a kilt out of respect for the bride’s Scottish heritage.  The trouble was that the kilt didn’t fit, it was out of character, and looked ridiculous.  It was clearly not the thing he should have been wearing. 

Instead, the things we’re to wear, with which to clothe ourselves are things that come natural to us, when we’re at our best.  They’re things of God—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  It’s a great wardrobe to have, and on days such as this, and in the days ahead, it’s a good thing to remember that in God we have an enormous wardrobe from which to choose.  And as long as we’re human, we will need that extra clothing, provided by God.

As long as we ask for it, God will provide what we need.  Mimi and Rick, as long as you ask for it from God, God will provide—when you’re cold and lonely, when you’re feeling weak and afraid, when you’re so mad you’re shaking, when you’re consumed with worry, when you’re so happy you feel you might explode—God will be your clothing.  God will always wrap and enfold you for his love.

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

Dangerous Territory: The Eucharist

A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 10, 2012.  The lectionary readings are from the Book of Common Prayer, "Of the Holy Eucharist," Revelation 19:1-2a, 4-9, Psalm 34, 1 Corinthians 11:23-29, and John 6:47-58.

I used to serve a church that, for a little while, had a small sign posted in the sacristy.  I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, “omnes pavit; non est nocere.”  It was a working slogan for the sacristy, but also for the church and the way in which we celebrated the worship of God, and especially the way we celebrated the Eucharist.  The words translated simply enough:  All were fed; no one got hurt.

The idea that someone might get hurt may sound strange, until we recall that there has always been some fear around the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Perhaps all the way from its primeval and archetypal roots, the idea of a sacrifice for us, is dangerous.  Perhaps, instead of the little Latin sign, we should have a sign near our sacristy that says, “Danger:  God Working.” 
The idea that the Holy Sacrament could be dangerous might be funny when you first hear it or think of it. After all, what could be less harmful than a wafer on the tongue and a drop or two of communion wine mixed with water? Bread and wine are simple enough, but if we really believe, in we believe Real-ly, our faith tells us that this bread and wine contain the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. As today’s Gospel puts it, “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. They who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” And that’s where the danger begins.

Way in the back of the Prayer Book is the Catechism, and in the section about the Holy Eucharist, it reminds us of the benefits of the Eucharist. “The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our unions with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.” But hidden within each of these benefits, there are dangers.

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Saint Ignatius of Antioch called it the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” This is dangerous medicine, indeed, for anything or anyone who might be interested in keeping us in sin. The devil will not look on such medicine as innocuous or harmless, nor will his minions. And so, the Eucharist helps us. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.

The second benefit according to the Catechism has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a culture that suggests we should live only for ourselves, that we try to obtain all that we can for ourselves with little regard for others; in a culture that in any way lifts up people like the Kardashians as important, relevant or meaningful---- the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is dangerous stuff. 

In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underline that we are not so different from one another as we are sometimes led to believe. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marriage status are dissolved in the common chalice. They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.

Finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, this holy Sacrament, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending. Today’s reading from the Revelation to Saint John the Divine is filled with images of this feast of praise and joy and love. We live into the salvation and power and glory of God. The voices of the faithful from all times and all places blend together in a holy noise that sounds like water rapids, like the clapping for joy of great waves, like a thunderstorm of laughter. This vision of heaven reminds us of our destination. This vision never excuses oppression or injustice or abuse in our age, but it reminds us of the country we are bound for. We are God’s children, and that can be dangerous information for a world that would belittle or beat down or diminish.

On this day when we baptize Linda Mahler; this day when we pause to contemplate the Holy Eucharist, let the danger begin. Let us risk blasphemy, as Jesus did, as we try to show the Body of Christ to the world. Let us risk being misunderstood, as Jesus did, as we go out of our way to feed the hungry, to lift up the poor, to release those held in captivity. And let us risk the danger of faith, as our Savior Jesus did, taking up our cross daily and following him wherever he leads.

Jesus says, “They who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day …. They who eat this bread will live for ever.” May we live into these words, both dangerous and delicious.

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

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Corpus Christi and Us (to be Rudundant)

Since at least the thirteenth century, Christians have set aside a special day known as Corpus Christi, “the body of Christ.” It has served as a day for meditating on the Holy Eucharist and the ways in which Christ makes himself known to us in the breaking of bread.  In some ways this feast reverberates from the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday.  It is traditionally celebrated on the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. At All Souls, we observe the actual day of Corpus Christi but also transfer the major celebration to the next Sunday.  Accordingly, this Sunday we will focus on the Body of Christ in the readings, music, and hymns; and we will participate in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  But there is more.           

A former rector and mentor of mine used to point out the irony that so many of us reverence the Eucharist and the altars from which the Eucharist is shared and yet, we often treat one another in ways far less reverential.  We forget that we also bear the image of Christ.  Jesus feeds us with his Body so that we can be his body, the Church.  This Sunday we will add to the Body of Christ as we baptize and welcome a new Christian.  And just to make sure that our celebration afterwards is accessible to the full body of Christ our coffee hour will take place on the front lawn of the church.      

It is also appropriate that on this Corpus Christi Sunday we will light the new candles under our fourteen Stations of the Cross.  A parishioner sketched the idea for iron sconces which were recently made by a craftsman in Baltimore.  They were installed last week and will be lit for the first time this Sunday.  As we notice our Stations of the Cross in new ways and admire their beauty, we can recall the sacrifice Jesus made for us.  We can ask how Christ might be calling us to “take up our cross” and follow him daily.  In this way, our Corpus Christi is more than piety.  It is prayer that leads us into action as God continues to move, speak, and love in our world.

Last week we blessed seersucker.  This week we contemplate some of the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith.  From silly to serious, we can rejoice in being called as God’s people, the Body of Christ. 


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