Sunday, July 05, 2015

Preach One: Proper 8B

Preached at St. Andrew's Episcopal images with this one, just words...

Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Psalm 30; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43.

And in this matter, Paul wrote, I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something - now finish doing it.

Last month, I began to do something...well, to desire to do it anyway.  I attended a conference on clergy wellness, about holistically and prayerfully examining spiritual, vocational, health and financial matters in order to better engage in the life and ministry we are given.  By the end of the conference we had all written a small rule of life, an intentional rhythm of activities and practices to help us notice and honor and abide in God's presence day by day.  A rule of life might include setting aside time for prayer or reading or writing; or learning a new practice that helps to center us, at a loom or in a garden or with a fishing pole in hand.  Perhaps we intend to spend more time in community, to encounter God in others; or in solitude, to encounter God in ourselves.  Perhaps we intend to eat more healthfully, or sleep more soundly.

For a rule to become a daily practice, two things must be true.  First, it must be realistic, not an ideal toward which we are striving.  Memorize the Book of Psalms is a lovely if lofty goal.  Read one psalm every morning is a very good rule of life.  Second, a rule should include some form of accountability, preferably a person, someone to help you remember your rule when you forget it, to pray for you as you practice it, and to discern with you when it might be time to make changes to your rule.

If you make Jody, our Canon for Parish Ministry, your accountability person for the part of your rule of life in which you have stated your intention to exercise regularly, this is what you will hear every day at the office: Did you walk today?  How about today?  Did you walk yet?  Are you walking?

It is one thing to commit to doing something... But somewhere between I will walk an hour every week, and lacing up my walking is another thing altogether to follow through.  It's kinda hot today.  I'm really tired.  There's just not time.  I have to get this, or that, or a thousand other things, done first.  I'll just walk tomorrow.

I am giving my advice, Paul wrote, what you began doing, what you desired to do, now finish doing it.  He was writing, of course, to the faithful in Corinth, with whom he had corresponded before, his first letter filled with moral instruction, and teaching concerning the purpose of spiritual gifts and the practice of Christian love (you know, how it is patient and kind, how it bears all things, how of faith, hope, and love, love is the greatest).  Paul had also in that letter urged them to offer financial support to the poor in Jerusalem, and the Corinthians had agreed to do so, desiring to do so, for though they were Gentile and the believers in Jerusalem were Jews, they understood from Paul that in Christ all are baptized into one body, Jew and Greek, slave and free.  If one members suffers, all suffer together, Paul had told them.  If one is honored, all rejoice.

But that was a year ago.  And now, though the Corinthians had followed Paul's teaching and Christ's example in loving one another, they had failed to follow through on their financial commitment.  Who knows what happened between, I will give to those in need, and sending the money to Jerusalem.  I don't have enough.  Someone else will do it.  There is this need, and that need, and a thousand other needs right here.  It won't help that much anyway.

So what does happen to us in that space, the space after we acknowledge our intention to act, to move, to love, to extend ourselves, to give...and before we actually do it, or fail to do it?  Why does now suddenly become not the right time?  Why are we suddenly not the right people?  Why is our offering suddenly not the right one?  What keeps us from walking?  What keeps us standing still?

We have witnessed in the past few weeks the devastating results of failing to follow through, to finish what has been begun, to effectively and decisively end racism and gun violence.  And even as the members of Mother Emmanuel AME responded to the horrific tragedy on their grounds with indeed amazing grace, we have watched as many others across our nation instead descend further into division, arguing about race and rights while significant gaps remain between black and white Americans in many ways, such as education, income and access to healthcare, and while gun-related incidents claim thirty American lives every day.  And then decisions rendered by the United States Supreme Court in the name of justice for all revealed still more division, our newspaper opinion pages and Facebook feeds filled with both elation and anger, deep gladness and confused grief.  In the midst of all our division, we are hemorrhaging community.

"The truth is," said the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, elected and confirmed yesterday as our new Presiding Bishop, "The truth is, we are brothers and sisters of each other.  The hard work is to figure out how to live as beloved community, the family of God."  We have brothers and sisters who live in fear every day, who live in isolation, who live with prejudice, who live without equality or safety or enough to eat.  We have brothers and sisters with whom we live in disagreement, in our nation, in our neighborhoods, even in our Church.  We have our own fears, or pride, or self-righteousness, or doubts, or a thousand other things that make us linger in the space between desiring and doing.  How can we move forward as beloved community, as the family of God, when hate, oppression, busyness, pride and division crowd our way?

Paul pointed the Corinthian community toward Christ as the example of fearless giving, of generously and radically transforming love.  Jesus touched us, entered into relationship with us, built a beloved community out of us.  Following through means following him, giving whatever it is we give, both individually and as a church - whether it is financial resources, or bags of lemons, or a few hours at the front desk, or a lunch break serving at Stewpot, or a willingness to listen, really listen, to another's pain...we give whatever it is we give, according to what we have to offer, because Christ gave himself for us, to us; gives himself with us, through us.

Poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes writes of the reasons we list for why we cannot give of ourselves, why we stay stuck and isolated in the space between desiring and doing," There is not enough time... You don't have the power... Of course you don't.  It's not yours.  Time does not belong: it flows.  Power does not sit: it flows.  It is not your time, not your energy, but God's.  You enter the river and it flows through you."

So I walked on the treadmill Friday morning - I can't wait to tell Jody! - and I watched as the week's headlines scrolled across a television screen.  And it struck the midst of all we have experienced as a nation and as a church in these past few weeks, we as people of faith, as family of God, have an extraordinary opportunity to follow through.  To do what we have said we would do, to finish what Christ started, perhaps not expecting, as President Obama said of Reverend Pinckney, pastor of Mother Emmanuel Church, perhaps not expecting to see in our lifetimes complete transformation, but not accepting any reasons or excuses not to act anyway.  To love our brothers and sisters, all of them, with patience and kindness, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude.  To live as beloved community, in eagerness and gentleness.  To bear witness to amazing grace.

After all, we named our desire and decision to do something in our baptism, when the covenant we made as water dripped down our necks became our first rule of life.  Will we continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?  Will we persevere in resisting evil, and whenever we sin repent and return to the Lord?  Will we proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?  Will we seek and serve Christ in all persons - all persons - loving our neighbors as ourselves?  Will we strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being - even those who differ from us, even those who disagree with us?  In this commitment we have begun in baptism and are called to continue in community, our accountability person is none other than the one who made us and who loves us and keeps us.  I will, with God's help.

Brothers and sisters, let us finish what we have set out to do, which is to say, let us do love, let us be kind, let us welcome grace, until what Christ started is complete.  Let us live in real community, as God's family, with God's help.  "We are part of the Jesus movement," Bishop Curry proclaimed, "and nothing can stop the movement of Christ's love in the world."  Amen.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Preach One: Lisa and David

My first wedding sermon, preached for Lisa and David at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Dallas, TX.  

1 Corinthians 13:1-13; John 15:9-12

In the name of God who has made us, and who loves us, and keeps us.  Amen.

I was delighted and honored to say yes when Lisa and David asked if I would be the preacher at their wedding.  In the days and weeks that followed their invitation I thought of them often, remembering times and places we have shared.  Chapel bells, refectory meals, Father Wright's icons, and Frank's Deli when Lisa and I were both at General Seminary in New York City.  Wake-up bells, canteen snacks, capture the flag and mum-ba-yah when David and I were both counselors at Camp Kanuga in western North Carolina.

I remembered it was actually at Kanuga that I met both Lisa and David, maybe even in the same summer, but almost two decades before they would meet each other there.  None of us knew it back then, I think, but on hiking trails and cabin porches, around campfires and in outdoor chapels, in playing fields and at dining hall tables we were being shaped and formed for the calls we have answered, and at one dining hall table in particular, Lisa and David were being shaped and formed for this very day.

So I was delighted and honored to say yes.  And then I remembered two more things.  First, I have never preached a wedding sermon before.  I have been the celebrant, I have read the gospel, I was a flower girl twice, I've been a bridesmaid, and I've been a bride.  But somehow never the preacher.  It suddenly seemed an intimidating task for a worship service already so filled with important and beautiful words: Arise my love, I take you, with all that I have, with all that I am, I pronounce, husband and wife.  The entire liturgy and the way we move within it preaches itself, lifting up a relationship between two people as an outward and visible sign of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  Love one another as I have loved you.  Abide in love...

The second thing I realized, which helped considerably with the first, was that I don't remember a single thing the preacher at my wedding said.  Not one single word.  So, Lisa and David, no expectations from me that you'll remember these words, either!

The thing is, expectations are already pretty high.  We're asking a lot of Lisa and David, of anyone willing to say so publicly, I do, I choose love.  Not some sentimental affection, but love that is reflective of the love of God, which is to say, love that is creative and intentional and active.  We don't have to remember because even Episcopalians can quote from scripture the words Paul wrote about love, how it is patient and kind, never envious or boastful.  It does not insist on its own way, nor is it irritable.  Are you up for all of that, from this day forward?  For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health?  I don't have to tell you that the worse days are out there.

Love is not easy.  Though we are all of us made in love's image, for the purpose of love, Paul is right: we so often see only dimly, through shadows of anxiety, or grief, or fear, or frustration.  We lose sight form time to time of what love is in its fullness.  Sometimes we just forget to see.  We are too busy to be patient, too tired to be kind.  We insist on our own way.  In the prayers we will say for Lisa and David we will hear an even harder confession, that it is not a matter of if but when that they will hurt each other.

And so in our prayers tonight, in your vows, there are still more words that preach themselves as we hear them, and even more so when we practice them in our relationships with others, especially in our worse and poorer moments.  Words like mercy, forgiveness, help, and grace.  Words like overcome, heal, grow, comfort, strengthen, and transform.  Words like reach out in love and concern.  Perhaps it is when we practice these things that our love most resembles the love of God in Christ.

We are celebrating Lisa and David's life together tonight, but not for its own sake - we are celebrating them as a living example of loving one another as we have all been loved by God.  Not for how to stretch a single moment of happiness into a lifetime of bliss, but how to love daily and fiercely and deliberately.  Abiding in love isn't about being perfect but about being vulnerable, about asking for forgiveness, about needing grace, about confessing our inevitable failures and our fervent hope, and our faith that God is the one from whom all love proceeds and the one to whom all love points.

Lisa and David, you don't need a preacher today.  Your lives, your love, your smiles, your solemn vows, your words will preach to us for a lifetime about what it means to abide in love, to have faith that there is in God through Christ a love divine, all loves excelling, shaping and forming and filling and forgiving our dim and daily efforts.  In your turning to one another, we see love face to face.  Remember, and we will remember too, that we have said we will do all in our power to support you.  Remember that after choosing one another, after all the vows you make, promising to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, we will say at the last that it is God who has joined you together, God in whom you both abide as the individuals you have become and as the union in heart and body and mind that you are becoming together.  God's love for you and in you and through you is stronger than death, fierce as the grave, bigger than Texas (can I say that here?!?).  God's love makes all things new, even those worse and poorer days, bears all things, even what we think we cannot, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  "May God's love then be the pattern for ours," writes Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.  "May God's wide embrace, God's boundless generosity, God's reckless mercy, God's steadfast and unfailing love be our rule and guide, today and always," so long as we all shall live.

What did the preacher say at our wedding?!?  Only remember this...these abide: faith, hope and love. And our prayers for you.  And Kanuga toast.  But the greatest of these is love.  Amen.

Artwork: All photographs taken at St. Michael and All Angels.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday: How Can These Things Be...

Preached at the evening Good Friday liturgy, a combined service of St. Andrew's Cathedral and Galloway United Methodist Church.

John 19:35-41

How can these things be?  As the Sabbath descended with the setting sun, the body of Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus the Pharisee.  The lengthening shadows made it all the harder to tell where the garden ended and the tomb began, dark as though the day had never dawned.  Even when the sun was at its height, at noon when Jesus was lifted up on the cross, it had illuminated only the world's fear, hardness of heart, and unbelief.  But now the light was lost, and with it...with him...the hope of all who had followed him this far.

How can these things be?  It is the last question Nicodemus asks Jesus in the gospel account of their first meeting, shrouded under cover of night when he knew no one would see them together, a member of the religious establishment and this man from Galilee who was presenting God in an entirely new light.  Nicodemus, accustomed to his own authority, had the first word, at worst a compliment for are a teacher who has come from best, a glimmer of recognition. But then Jesus spoke...No one can see God's reign without being born from above...and Nicodemus was left in the dark.  How, he asked.  Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?

The gospel does not tell us how they parted ways that night, only that Nicodemus never seemed to understand what Jesus went on to say about being newly born, about having new life.  We don't know when Nicodemus slipped back out beneath the stars, still wondering, how can these things be.  If he did linger just a verse or two longer in the gospel account, then he heard Jesus speak also of light and darkness and salvation, and how God so loved the world as to give God's Son, that all, that all, might live.

How can these things be?  Nicodemus would utter these words again, or words very much like them, some time later before members of the high council on which he served.  They had tried several times to arrest Jesus, but had failed for fear of the crowds of people drawn to his life-giving light.  They do not know the law, these leaders murmured to one another, how Jesus disregards it, and that is when Nicodemus spoke, fanning into a flame a spark perhaps even he did not know was there, hidden in his heart, in the dark.  Are we not also disregarding the law, he asked the council.  How can we judge him without giving him a proper hearing?

The council would go on to convict Jesus, before he even was arrested, and the trial before Pilate would condemn him to death.  Betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, can these things be?  It was finished, they all thought, his followers, his friends, his foes, at the foot of the cross in the gathering gloom.

I wonder if Nicodemus was there.  He may very well have been, by virtue of his position, or perhaps because of that flame in him, because of the light that ever since that secret night had been changing how he saw everything.  You must be born from above... He had watched Jesus from then on, from the shadows of course, from the distance of his remaining doubt, from his fear of a world that was different than he had ever imagined...Nicodemus would have watched and listened as Jesus went about healing broken hearts and lives, restoring the lost and marginalized, and revealing God's living and loving presence in the midst of our hunger and thirst and vulnerability and darkness.  I AM, Nicodemus would have heard Jesus say, and he would have recognized the name.  I AM the true bread...I am living water...I am the Good Shepherd...I am the light oft he world.

So it was, perhaps, when the cross was raised with Jesus upon it that Nicodemus finally saw the light, which in the poetry and wisdom of the gospel of John is to say that Nicodemus finally believed, remembering how Jesus had told him once in the dark, So myst the Son be lifted up, that all who believe may live, which is to say, that all may abide, even now, in the presence of God who so loved.  In that moment, Nicodemus saw.  Nicodemus believed.  Nicodemus came alive.

How can these things be?  In the face of such abuse of power, such denial of justice let alone mercy, such blindness to truth; in the midst of such fear, such loss, such grief; in the horror of such a brutal death?  How could there be any light at all?  How could there be any life?  Nicodemus finally knew that it was because there, lifted up for all to see, was such Love, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.  If, as Jesus had said, it was the work of God's incarnate Son, with hands and heart and and bones and breath and blood, to bring light to dark places, love to despairing places, even life to dead places, then here in this darkness, on this day of despair, in this death, Christ performed the most light-giving, love-giving, life-giving act of all, for all.

Nicodemus was born anew.  And the first act of his new life was to use his own hands and heart and bones and breath and blood to take the human body of Christ and bear it, and wrap it tenderly in cloths and lay like what Mary did when Christ's body was newborn...and lay it now in a tomb, dark as night...which was where Nicodemus had first seen the light, where he had first heard new life and such love were possible.  What happens when we, too, bear Christ into dark and despairing places and wrap them tenderly in light, in life, in love?

Perhaps it was Nicodemus, our newly-born brother in Christ, who years later conferred with the gospel writer and offered an opening verse: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Artwork: The Fourteenth Station, by Simon Carr.

Good Friday: It Is Finished...

Preached at the noon Good Friday liturgy at St. Andrew's Cathedral.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25; John 18:1-19:42

Jesus said, “It is finished.”

On Good Friday, it is always John’s account we read of the passion and death of our Savior Jesus Christ.  On Good Friday, then, because John does not include them in his telling, there is no Passover meal, no agony in the garden, no prayer for the passing of this cup, no cry of forsakenness from the cross, no earthquake, no darkness, no curtain of the temple torn in two.

On Good Friday, it is finished.  It is no longer how we got here that matters.  If we must confess our complicity this day, it is with the help of the prophet Isaiah…All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and God has laid on one the iniquity of us all.  We know.  We’ve been trailing ashes and dust behind us all the long season of Lent, remembering and repenting the countless ways we deny and betray God’s will for us, God’s image in us.  Forgive us, we have prayed.

On Good Friday, it is finished.  It is not even exactly what happened there that matters, the heartbreaking, heartstopping details of sweat and anguish and pain and grief.   If we must this day recall the suffering of Christ himself, it is with the psalmist…I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax; my mouth is dried out, my tongue sticks; I can count all my bones.     

What matters today, on Good Friday, the way John tells it…all that matters is knowing who this Jesus is, and who we are because we followed him here.  I am…Jesus has said throughout the fourth gospel.  I am…he has said, echoing the ancient and unspeakable name of God.  I am the bread of life.  I am the good shepherd.  I am the way.  I am resurrection, and I am life.  When they come to arrest him and ask for Jesus of Nazareth, he answers, I am he, and John tell us they fall to the ground.   Did they hear in his voice God from God, Light from Light?  For just a moment, did they know that they were laying hands on the maker of heaven and earth?

From the first words of John’s gospel to the very last verse, we know that Jesus, for all the blood in his veins and breath in his lungs and bones in his body, that Jesus is the living God, who knows all that will happen to him and still chooses to heal the sick and love the sinner and confront injustice and show mercy and go to Golgotha – having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.  The story of his passion – and if the word means suffering, it also means a fierce and active and intentional and abiding love – the story of all Jesus ever did and all he ever suffered and all he ever loved begins, in that gospel, long before our denials and betrayals, long before Bethlehem, long before, well…In the beginning, John writes, In the very beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and through him all things were made.  In him was light, and the light was the life of all people.  And the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth.

“The first word,” another preacher has written of the passion of our Savior Jesus Christ, “The first word was Love.  Then the mistakes, the hurts done to us and to others, every good thing, every lost love, every good intention ended badly, every bad choice redeemed, every step in the dark toward an unknown destination: Love had already arrived.  And the last word is Love.  It’s all there is.”   It’s all that matters.

On Good Friday, it is God, the great I AM, the maker of heaven and earth, in whose image even we are made…it is God in Jesus Christ who has followed us here, through all the ashes and dust of our failure, through the pain that is sin’s consequence, to the cross, where love was meant to be defeated, but instead it is finished.  Not “it is ended,” not “it is over,” not “it is done.”  Love, the first and last word, has finished revealing its fullness and faithfulness and fearlessness.  It is fulfilled.  It is consummated.  It is known this day for all its breadth and depth and width.  Jesus Christ, we say in our morning prayers, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that the whole world might come within the reach of your saving embrace.  The work of the cross is finished.  But it is not, sisters and brothers, ended. 

For God so loved the world as to give God’s Son, that all who believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  On Good Friday of all days, new life begins, a life of outstretched arms.  An empty tomb will be the sign soon enough, but our salvation begins right here.  Love as I have loved, Jesus asked of his friends, love, he asks of us, and if we thought washing feet would be hard…on Good Friday we know, deeply and painfully and powerfully, that love does not stop with a basin and towel but goes to where life and light and love and grace and truth seem for all the world to have come to an end.  On Good Friday, this is where God is, this is where love is, and that’s what matters.  It is how, trembling, we begin to pray for this ashes and dust and beloved world as Christ prayed for us in the hours before his death.  It is how on this day of all days our prayers end with this one…O God of unchangeable power and eternal light…carry out the plan of your salvation, let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new.  It is finished.  But it is not ended.

Love as I have loved, Jesus has asked of us, his living body.  Love, fiercely and actively and intentionally, and just see what happens when love meets failure, meets sorrow, meets pain, meets even death.   Sisters and brothers, it is begun.  Amen.