Friday, May 29, 2009

Day of Pentecost

We got an early start on Pentecost with the closing faculty/staff Eucharist at St. Andrew's Episcopal School.

Acts 2:1-12; Psalm 104:25-31; Romans 8:22-26; John 15:26-27, 16:12-15

How many different languages do you speak?  Many of you, of course, have at least a passing knowledge of at least one other language besides English.  Several of you are fluent in at least one other languages.  Me?  It’s been a while since my last Spanish class in college, and even longer since I took Latin in Middle School.  I learned a little Greek in seminary, but New Testament Greek has a pretty limited vocabulary, so that I know just enough to convincingly pronounce Greek words, like pentekoste, which means “fiftieth”.

When the day of Pentecost had come, Luke tells us in the book of Acts, the disciples were all together in one place.  And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind... Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them... All of them were filled by the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Jerusalem was crowded that day with Jewish pilgrims who had come to make an offering of the first fruits of their wheat harvest fifty days following the offering of the barley harvest during Passover.  Did they hear the rush of wind?  Did they see the tongues of flame?  We only know that they saw the disciples of Jesus Christ spilling out from an upper room into the streets, and that they heard the disciples proclaiming God’s saving deeds in all the languages of the world.  Greeks heard it in Greek.  Egyptians heard fluent Egyptian.  Pamphylians heard perfect Pamphylian. 

In many Episcopal churches this Sunday, the story of Pentecost will be read in a wide variety of languages, many of which come from countries halfway around the world, and many of which are just plain English.  Even the English, though, will sound like many languages, for some will read from directly the bible.  Some will read the story in their own words.  There will be male and female voices, very old and very young voices, loud and soft voices.  Voices that are tired, voices that are excited, voices that are angry, anxious, hesitant, happy, grieving.  A wide variety of languages.

So it is here, on this campus, and on the campus just down the interstate, where children and families and faculty and staff from all around the world gather to harvest the first fruits of knowledge.  Here at St. Andrew’s, whether we teach Spanish or Italian or Mandarin, whether we know Greek or Egyptian or Pamphylian or just English, we all speak many languages.  Our words and actions and voices and memories and emotions, our hands and faces and postures, our experiences and our silences, our teaching and our learning and our working, all of who we are speaks.

Much of what many of you say I do not understand - it is like a foreign language to me.  I don’t know the language of calculus, or economics, or set-building, or weight-lifting.  I don’t know Mandarin, or robotics, or the aesthetics of art or the life cycle of sea urchins.  I don’t know how to raise money or perfectly match letter days and classrooms available and courses offered.  It’s all Greek - not New Testament Greek, but real Greek - to me.

We speak a wide variety of languages, and yet... We also speak just one.  It is a language of passion, a language of commitment, a language of loving what we do.  In the vocabulary of ministry, what we have are, I think, not just jobs but vocations.  Jobs are particular incarnations of the unique and widely varied sets of gifts and graces each one of us possess.  We are hired to do a job.  Our vocation, though, is a calling.  It is a fire somewhere far deeper down than the sines and cosines and scripts and scores and timelines and outlines and easels and ladders and laptops that are the tools of our trades.  Our vocation is far more than the knowledge we have accumulated or the training we have received.  It doesn’t come with a degree or a certificate or a contract.  Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and theologian, describes vocation this way: “God calls you,” Buechner writes, “to the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”


Here we are, then, the faculty and staff of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School gathered in one place.  The air is still, and while we hopefully won’t see any tongues of flame it’s soon going to be hot as blazes in Mississippi.  Nonetheless, the Spirit of God moves among and around and in us, just as it does each and every day we gather on our campuses and do our jobs, live out our vocations, meet the world’s deep need for creative and inquisitive young minds with our deep gladness in shaping them.  

We left this chapel last August spilling out into our classrooms and offices, proclaiming truths in all our many languages, and speaking a common language of passion and compassion not unlike the language spoken by Jesus as he endeavored to teach by word and example how wondrous this life can be.  Today as we leave we will spill out in different directions, ready to be still for a time, to be quiet, to rest our voices and our vocation.  The Holy Spirit is in this time, too, this time of refreshment and renewal, carefully tending the embers of our heart’s fire until they are ready to burn again, moving through us not as a rushing wind but as the air we breathe, praying in us with sighs too deep for words.

Veni sancte spiritus.  Ven espiritu santo.  Viens saint esprit.  Come, Holy Spirit.  In you God’s energy is shown, to us your varied gifts make known.  Teach us to speak, teach us to hear; yours is the tongue and yours the ear.  (att. Rabanus Maurus, 776-856)  Amen. 

Artwork:  "Pentecostes," contemporary Mexican icon; "Apparuerunt illis dispertitae linguae" by Salvador Dali; "Unquenchable Light" by Kathy Thaden; "Pentecost" quilt by Linda Schmidt

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Easter 7B

I spent the afternoon in between morning worship in Crystal Springs and evening worship in Jackson looking for pictures or paintings of in between places (you'll understand if you read on)...

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

I mean no disrespect to God’s incarnate Word, but every once in a while... Perhaps it’s the way John told the story, weaving threads of theology through the discourses Jesus delivered.  In this passage from John’s gospel, Jesus seems to use no more than five words, rearranging them from one sentence to the next to create a mind-bending tongue twister rivaling the rhymes of Dr. Seuss.  All mine are yours and yours are mine...and I am no longer in the world but they are in the world...they do not belong to the world just as I do not belong to the I have sent them into the world.  I don’t know.  It makes about as much sense, don’t you think, as “Here’s a new trick, Mr. Knox: Socks on chicks and chicks on fox.  Fox on clocks and bricks and blocks.  Bricks and blocks on Knox on box...”  

Or what about this: Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places... These words do not belong to the latest posthumous work from Dr. Seuss, although they were inspired by the way Seuss played with rhyme and meter and hope.

Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places... Early in our last semester of seminary, our class went on retreat to reflect on our journey so far and to look ahead at how the road was forking and branching and curving toward the as-yet unseen places we would be serving as newly ordained clergy.  We were divided into small groups and instructed to write a prayer for use during this time of transition, this space very literally between places - between who we were before we came to seminary and who we would be when we left, between where we lived before we came to seminary and where we would live when we graduated, between what we believed when we came to seminary and what we would believe by the time we walked through the gates of the seminary close for the last time.

Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  I don’t remember how my group came up with this prayer.  It took us nearly all of the allotted time to come up with anything at all - there was so much we wanted to say to God, so many things in our hearts and minds, so much anticipation, so much anxiety.  Should our prayer look back in thanksgiving, or should it look forward through petition?  At the last possible moment, as we wrestled with what direction to go, the prayer appeared, and as we prayed it, we understood that our need was simply to know the presence of God right then and there in the time between looking back and moving forward, the time between no longer and not yet.

We are in several spaces between places today, first with the disciples in our reading from Acts.  Just before today’s reading begins, the disciples were with Jesus, one of many times he had appeared to them during the forty days since Easter.  He was speaking to them about the kingdom of God, Luke tells us.  The disciples still thought he meant some sort of political kingdom - surely, now that he had conquered death, he could easily conquer Rome.  Instead, Jesus started talking about the work he intended for them to do.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, he said, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.  And then, just as suddenly as he had been appearing in locked Upper Rooms, a cloud lifted Jesus up and he disappeared from their sight. 

As he went, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven.  Luke makes this sound so reverent, but I imagine the gazing had more to do with shock than spiritual experience.  In fact, two angels had to come and practically pick the disciples’ jaws up off the floor, saying, Why are you looking up to heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way.  I think it was a gentle way of saying, So, are you going to stand here staring all day?  Don’t you think you should get started on that witnessing thing he asked you to do?  He’s coming back, you know.

And so here we are, in between places with the disciples.  Jesus has ascended - the church celebrated that event on Thursday, forty days after Easter.  But the Holy Spirit has not yet come - we will celebrate that event next Sunday, fifty days after Easter, in Greek, pentekoste.  Things are no longer what they were, but they are not yet what they will be.  There is a calling to follow, a mission to fulfill, but no clear direction of how to go about it all without Jesus, without him walking ahead of his disciples or telling them a story to help them understand or holding their outstretched hands when their faith falters.

The disciples had been in in-between places before.  The heartbeats between when Jesus first said “follow me” and they said “yes”.  Those terrible days between Jesus’ death and his rising to new life.  The hours spent at the dinner table on the night before Jesus died, when he shared one last meal with them, when he stooped to wash their feet and called it an act of love of the sort they should show one another, when he began to speak to them of everything that mattered most, when, as John tells us, he began to pray.  Now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Oh God of good graces, look with compassion on their faces as they now stand in this space between... Holy Father, protect them...

For three years, Jesus had cared for them, taught them, protected them, loved them, and prepared (although they did not know it) them for this very moment, this very prayer.  Holy Father, protect them... It was the last prayer the disciples would hear their teacher pray, for they would fall asleep in the garden that night, and soon after they would flee from the cross.  Still, I ask you to protect them, Jesus prayed.  I place my friends, my disciples, my witnesses, in your hands, God.

Perhaps the disciples remembered this moment, this prayer, as they stood in the space between Ascension and Pentecost.  Jesus had urged them to tell the story of his love, to take up the work he had done, to carry his message into the world.  And so, with heavy hearts and with a prayer of their own, hoping that they were indeed in God’s hands, they chose someone to round out their number, someone who had seen the extraordinary things that they had seen in the presence of Jesus Christ and who would join them in their witnessing.

I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world.  Jesus was praying as much for us as he was praying for those who were sitting at the dinner table with him that night.  In the verses just following our gospel reading, Jesus goes on to pray, I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word.  That’s us.  Jesus prayed for us that night.  For all the fear they may have felt in that in-between place of Jesus-has-gone and the-Spirit-is-not-yet-here, the disciples were finally able to tell their story, or else we would not be gathered today in this in-between place, this sanctuary between heaven and the world that goes on outside these doors.

We have never known, in quite the same way those first followers did, what it is like to sit at Jesus’ feet as he speaks, to follow him down a dusty road, to reach for his hand as we sink in waves of doubt and despair.  In between Ascension and Pentecost, in between his first and second coming, in this world that we are somehow in but not of, is Jesus with us?  We pray for direction, as we prayed at the start of the service this morning: O God, do not leave us comfortless...  


For we, too, are called to bear witness.  We, too, have a story to tell of all that we have seen and heard about how God so loved the world.  And yet the world is not at all times and in all places been receptive to that story.  Many women and men have been brought to the very threshold of life and death by their bearing witness.  The good news of Jesus Christ reveals infinite possibilities for love in between the rigid extremes of the world.  In the world one is enemy or ally; we bear witness to mutuality.  In the world power is gained or it is lost; we bear witness to power that is shared.  In the world one strives for glory; we bear witness to the glory of God.

Were the disciples comforted or worried as they listened to Jesus pray?  Did Matthias win or lose when the coin was tossed on that in-between day?  The answer, if we are honest, is yes.  We are happy to be disciples, but there are times we are tempted to hide from the world in the safety of a sanctuary, or to stand motionless, gazing up at heaven, watching for Jesus to return and do the work for us, longing for a someday and a somewhere when everything will be made right.  How would those times be different for us, though, if we remembered that we, like the many generations of disciples before us, are people for whom Jesus himself prays?  That on our behalf, Jesus asks God to strengthen and protect and encourage us?

How would those times be different for us if we remembered, when longing for the flesh and bone body of Jesus Christ to be here, that the flesh and bone body of Jesus Christ is here, right here, right now?  “Christ has no body in the world now but ours,” wrote Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish nun.  “Christ has no body in the world now but ours.  No hands but ours, no feet but ours.  Our are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on the world.  Ours are the feet with which he goes about doing good.  Ours are the hands with which he blesses.”  We are the flesh and bone, the living members of Christ’s body. 

As we now stand in this space between places, between Ascension and Pentecost, between Jesus’ first and second coming, between any now and not yet in which we find ourselves in our lives, let us rejoice that God does not leave us comfortless.  Indeed, God does not leave us at all.  We are never apart from the care and protection of God, for Jesus has placed us in God’s hands, has made us living members of his Body, and has sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen us as we go into those places in the world that are most in need of love, the very places that Jesus himself went before us.  Things are no longer what they were, and they are not yet what they will be, but every step we take in-between brings us nearer to the presence of the One who continues to pray for our comfort, our strength, and our joy.  

Let us pray.  Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  Amen.

Artwork: Photo of Nunnery Wall on Iona, by Jennifer; Photo by the Reverend Scott Fischer; "Birch Trees" by; "Places of Light" by Krystyna Sanderson; "High Priestly Prayer" by Corinne Vonaesch.

The water is fine...

We had the privilege today of witnessing the baptism of one of Little Charlie's friends in the waters of the Reservoir.  It was truly an outward and visible sign chosen to share with the world the inward and spiritual grace of the relationship she cherishes with Jesus Christ.

I asked Little Charlie what he thought baptism was.

"Being bathed by the Holy Spirit," he said.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Easter 5B

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Jesus said, “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... I am the vine, you are the branches.”

I know that many things are grown in the rich soil of the Mississippi Delta... Are vines planted here?  In and around Jackson, the only vines or other creeping plants I see are certain ivies and roses and honeysuckles, phlox and other groundcovers, and the one that grows in our yard, wisteria.  I’ve never seen grapes or even wild muscadines growing, but of course in and around Jerusalem, at the time of Jesus, vineyards were as ubiquitous as roadside kudzu is here.  

I am the true vine, my Father is the vinegrower, you are the branches... It might easily have been that as Jesus was searching for ways to explain the intimate and life-giving relationship between God and himself and us, that he was looking out the window of the house where he was eating dinner with his friends and saw a vineyard.  It’s like that, he might have said thoughtfully, his eyes searching row upon row of dark curling tendrils and green leaves and ripe clusters of fruit.  Look there, it’s like that.  I am the vine, my Father is the vinegrower, you are the branches.

And as they, too, looked out the window, they would have considered all that they knew and had heard about growing grapes.  How the vine, rooted deep in the earth, becomes lost in the twining of its branches.  How the vinegrower, rooted deep in the knowledge of the art of bearing fruit, tends the vines, carefully pruning back branches in order to make room for tender new growth.

It’s like that, Jesus might have said, turning back to his disciples around the table.  You have already been pruned, already been cleansed, by the word that I have spoken to you - the word of God, who loves you and tends you carefully like a shepherd, carefully like a vinegrower.  I am the vine, you are the branches...

I am the shepherd, you are the sheep, we heard Jesus say last week, as perhaps he gazed across a broad field where lambs grazed on sweet grass.  It was then as commonplace a sight as a vineyard, and those who were with him would have immediately understood something of the relationship between themselves and Jesus because they understood about the relationship between sheep and a shepherd.  How the shepherd protects the sheep from danger and leads the sheep to good pasture.  How the shepherd knows and cares for all the sheep in the flock, and how the sheep know and trust the shepherd’s voice.

There aren’t many shepherds in our part of the world, but somehow the image still resonates all these years and miles away from the pastures Jesus knew.  We’ve seen enough pastoral paintings of shepherds and sheep, we’ve held little figurines of a shepherd with a lamb draped over his shoulders - my son even has a little stuffed sheep with a music box inside that plays “Jesus loves me, this I know...”  I am the Good Shepherd, Jesus says, and we are grateful that we are his sheep.    

Are we as grateful to be branches?  I am the vine, you are the...kudzu?  It sounds, at first, anyway, so much less personal, so much less intimate than a shepherd tending his sheep.  Surely shearing is, for the sheep that trusts its shepherd, a much less painful process than pruning is for a vine.  And being a sheep sounds like much less work than being a branch; sheep are simply led from pasture to stream to shelter, but branches have to weather storms in the wide open, they have to endure heat and drought, they have to grow, and they have to bear fruit.  We might much rather be sheep, quietly munching on grass and humming “Yes, Jesus loves me” as he gently prods us on.  

But if we look out the window, with Jesus, at vineyards stretching far as the eye can see, if we muster all that we know about vines and branches and fruitfulness, then perhaps we will find ourselves closer still to the one who promises not only to hold us as a shepherd holds a sheep but to be as united to us as branches to a vine so that his life truly abides in us and we in him.

If Jesus were sitting at the dinner table at my house and he looked out the window he would see not grapes but that wisteria that grows along the fence in our backyard.  It must have started in a corner and slowly spread across the back, now a wild wall of green and red and purple when it is in bloom in the early spring.  I wanted to encourage it, and so the first year we were in our house, I didn’t prune it at all but rather threaded the new shoots through the fence to encourage its growth in the direction of the opposite corner.  I tried to trace the long curling branches back to their source, but in the thick growth couldn’t see where the branches were joined.  This spring, as the leaves sprouted and the buds bloomed, I noticed that the vine had indeed been encouraged to grow, especially since I had never discouraged it with a pair of pruning shears, and in fact was so large and heavy with branches it was sagging to the ground.  In fact, the branches were now spreading across the ground in all directions in a biblical effort to, as the psalmist says, reach all the ends of the earth and all the families of the nations


I am the vine, you are the branches.  What an intricate and intimate relationship we have with Jesus, so wound together with one another and so bound to him that it is nearly impossible to tell where the vine ends and the branches begin.  Rooted in the ancient loam of God’s love, the vine began growing in a corner of the world and slowly spread among those who were hungry for its fruit.  Some feared its growth, though, and violently cut it down to a lifeless stump.  

They weren’t vinegrowers, I guess.  They didn’t know what life would burst forth when the first Easter morning dawned three days later.  They didn’t know that not only would life return but that it would increase as the vine put forth branches infused with the same ability to reach out into the world and feed it and fill it with flowers and flourish.  As long as the branches remain on the vine, Jesus tells us, the life of the vine remains in the branches, and together they bear fruit, which is to say, love.  The branches don’t do it alone - indeed, as the writer of First John reminds us, God sent God’s only Son into the world so that we might live through him.  In this is love, in this is fruitfulness, not that we loved God but that God loved us.

I’m not much of a vinegrower, either, but for a different reason, I think.  I haven’t cut my wisteria vine back to its stump (I don’t know where the stump is, for one thing).  I haven’t pruned it at all.  And it’s suffering, and taking the rest of the yard with it.  The branches are getting thin, and the ones growing along the ground don’t flower.

So it is with us.  Especially as we measure ourselves by the successes we have achieved, as we measure worth by what we have accomplished, as we measure growth by the ground we are able to cover.  We stretch so far from the vine that very little of its life-force reaches us.  We find ourselves competing for survival with other things growing all around us, choked by weeds and brambles.  It is time to prune, but for fear of losing all that we have gained, we cut away cautiously, careful to remove just enough so that we can take on something else in its place and claim that thing as fruit. 

Another pastor tells the story of watching out his office window as an elderly parishioner tended to the church garden.  The gentleman took his shears to a large bush that had been dense with flowers all summer and pruned it nearly to the ground.  The pastor came outside and asked why this had to be done, and the parishioner replied, “It drives the life back into the roots.  If you don’t cut it back, all the life comes out and it will die.”

I am the 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.  Instead of looking out a window, today Jesus is looking in at our lives and inviting us to see those places where we are stretched too far from the vine, where we are choked by weeds and brambles, where fruit has ceased to grow.  Jesus asks us also to consider that the places in us that do bear fruit may need pruning as well, in order to force life down deep inside ourselves and make room for new growth, new life, new love.

I am the vine, you are the branches.  We do not bear fruit alone.  The vine is the source of our life, the vinegrower carefully tends our growth, and together we branches reach out into the world, curling and twisting in our own ways and yet we are intertwined.  Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God.  If we love one another, God lives in us and flows through us, as the life of a vine flows through its branches, and God’s fruit, God’s love, is perfected in us for a world that is hungry.  Amen.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Washing Instructions

In many cases, handknits and water do not mix well.  Care must be taken, or that which is handknitted will turn into that which is handfelted.

Even when the label says "machine washable" I hesitate, because what if... After all that hard work, after all those tiny stitches and yarn overs and knit two togethers, what if... What if it shrank, or pilled, or felted, or fell completely apart?

I thought about this as we prepared for our annual Holy Week Sacred Stitches retreat at the Big House of the Duncan M. Gray Conference Center.  For four years now women (men are welcome - in fact, Bishop Gray himself knit a stitch in a prayer shawl when he stopped by one afternoon) have gathered for this three day conference to knit and pray and meditate and laugh and learn and then knit some more.

The first year, we prayed through the stations of the cross.  The second year, we meditated on selected poems from Ann Weems' book, Kneeling in Jerusalem.  Last year we reflected on the readings and prayers of our Holy Week services.  And this year for our theme we picked water.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.  Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.  Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise.  In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.

So begins the blessing over the water in the Episcopal Church's service of Holy Baptism.  In the Easter Vigil service, we recall story after story of how God has saved, has restored life, has seeded despair with hope, right up until the moment God saved us.  These are our washing instructions.

We thank you, God, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  We recite the words of our baptismal covenant, we are sprinkled with water from the font, and then Alleluia, Christ is Risen! the priest proclaims.  The Lord is risen indeed! we reply, and fresh from the font, we remember that we are risen, too. 

At the knitting conference, we reflected on stories from scripture that are sprinkled (and sometimes gushing) with water.  We brooded with the Holy Spirit over the waters of creation.  We watched the Red Sea part, and drank water from a rock in the wilderness.  We stood on the banks of the Jordan River as Jesus was baptized, and sat in a storm-tossed boat on the Sea of Galilee.  And we knitted.


Our knitting is in danger of being transformed if we wash it the wrong way accidentally.  But we ourselves go into the water deliberately, with the hope and promise of being transformed.  

Now sanctify this water, we pray you, by the power your Holy Spirit, that those who here are cleansed from sin and born again may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.