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Sunday, July 05, 2020

The Meek Are Getting Ready



A Sermon for Pentecost V - Proper 9 A - July 5, 2020
Recorded on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.

That’s what Matthew reports that Jesus said. I don’t know about you but I really need to hear those words today - especially the part about being weary and carrying heavy burdens. And, being given rest.

Our country seems no longer to be a “melting pot” but a boiling cauldron of dissent and divisiveness and I confess I am weary of it all. As of today, there are exactly 122 days to the election. 

I don’t know about you, but that can’t come soon enough. Then, whatever happens, we’ll be able to get on with continuing the great, on-going experiment we call ‘democracy’ – an idea which many will celebrate this long holiday weekend.

We hear an echo of these words of Jesus in Emma Lazarus’ poem which is engraved on the base of The Statue of Liberty. 
It’s these words, this morning, that catch the eyes of my soul and the ears of my heart:

"Takemy yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart." 
That's a difficult message to digest, especially if you confuse meekness and weakness.

My dear friend Louie Clay Crew used to say, “The meek are getting ready.” I never really understood what he was saying until one day I asked him. I learned that there is a big, important difference between being meek and being weak. 

That's what happens when you as an English professor about the English language. 

Louie explained that it takes strength of character to be meek and offer a meek disposition.  It is a deliberate choice to be meek, to not to assert oneself or press an advantage. 

Weakness, by contrast, doesn't have the capacity to assert itself. It's the opposite of strength. 

Take a moment to let the idea about meek vs. weak sink in.

Certainly, meekness seems in short supply in our world today. We tend to be more interested in self-protection and self-centeredness. That often causes us to adopt a defensive posture to our ideas and positions. It takes real strength to deliberately not assert oneself or press an advantage.

There’s a wonderful example of the strength of meekness in the continuing story of the aftermath of the Binding of Isaac inthis morning's lesson from Hebrew Scripture

Isaac was living in the Negeb, having come from Beer-lahai-roi, the spring named by his stepmother, Hagar, in thanksgiving for God saving her life and that of Ishmael, the firstborn of his family and the half-brother of Isaac. 

It is just my conjecture but I imagine that, after his father, Abraham, had tried to kill him, Isaac sought refuge with Hagar and Ishmael and had “settled” into life with or near them. Isaac never saw his parents, Abraham and Sarah, ever again. Even so, Abraham had arranged for a wife for Isaac. He was certain to instruct his servants to make sure that the woman chosen for her son came by her own volition. 

Isaac was out walking one evening when the caravan of camels and people drew near. Rebekah looked up and saw Isaac and immediately asked his identity. When she learned that this was the man she was going to marry, she did what strikes me as odd. 

Scripture says, “Soshe took her veil and covered herself.”

Again, this is just my conjecture, but I imagine that as they travelled, Rebekah had asked many questions about Isaac, the man she had agreed to marry, sight unseen. I imagine she was told about the binding of Isaac and that he had been so traumatized that he never lived with or talked to his parents again.  His mother had just died and he had not even gone home for her funeral. 

I think she knew, intuitively, that Isaac, in addition to deeply grieving his mother’s death, was suffering from a traumatic experience so horrific as to defy imagination. 

So, Rebekah chose to be meek. She chose to cover herself so that Isaac might not feel anxious our immediately pressured to accept her as his wife. 

She wanted his choice to be his, just as her choice had been hers.

Her meekness was a choice. Her meekness demonstrated her strength.

Scripture reports:He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.”
 
There are only a few places in scripture where this is said of an arranged marriage, and this is one of them. “ . . . and he loved her.”  Such is the power of meekness to mend a broken and grieving heart so that it may open, once again to love.

St. Paul tells us Jesus had the choice not to suffer a scratch in this world. Whereas a weak person can be victimized by the powerful, Jesus made the choice to lay down his life from a place of strength – his equality to God to which he did not cling.

Meekness is always in charge of the event, not subject to the will of others. 

As Mother Theresa taught her sisters, when you're in the presence of true meekness, you feel like you need to get down on your knees.

I am convinced that the only way we are going to get ourselves out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into in this world is for us to practice meekness. 

We may need to follow the good example of Rebekah and cover ourselves with a metaphorical veil for a time, just until the anxiety level decreases and trust increases.

We most certainly will benefit from following the teachings of Jesus whose time on the cross went from a symbol of religious condemnation to a symbol of salvation for us all.  Jesus said, “ . . . learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.
 
Jesus also said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

To which I will add my own: Blessed are those who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for the meek are getting ready to take on the yoke of Jesus.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Yahweh Yireh



"What the Lord Will Provide"
A Sermon preached via Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10 The Headstrong Daughter
Pentecost IV - Proper 8 A
June 28, 2020

I’m going to get to the Gospel in a minute but I still haven’t caught my breath after reading the first lesson from the 22nd Chapter of Genesis.

Even after all these years and the hundreds of times I’ve read this passage, I get through the first sentence and my palms start to sweat. By the second paragraph, a voice in my head starts screaming, “How can you do this to your son?”

By the end of the story, when I get to the part of the story that reports, “Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 

So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide (“Yahweh Yireh”); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided,” I can barely contain my anger and incredulity and outrage.

“Don’t you blame this heinous act on God!” I yell at Abraham! “Don’t. You. Dare!!!” God WILL provide – has always provided – but do NOT blame this on God,” I hear myself say, “Man up and take responsibility for it yourself!"

Is it any wonder that, when Isaac came down from that mount, he never spoke to or saw either of his parents ever again? He didn’t even come to his mother’s funeral. And, why would he? She was the one who convinced his father to banish his brother Ishmael and his surrogate mother Hagar to die in the desert. 

An interesting footnote in this story is that, as we learned in last week’s lesson, Hagar and Ishmael end up traveling from Abraham's dwelling in Beersheba (Genesis 16:1) to the wilderness of Paran. 

Years later, when Isaac meets Rebekah, it is said that he was at Beer-lahai-roi, (which means “well of the Living One that sees me”) – the very place where Hagar was visited by God and she and Ishmael were saved from death.

It’s conjecture, of course, but I imagine that, after coming down from that mount where his father Abraham bound him and was prepared to kill him, Isaac was suffering from we know today to be PTSD. 

You only have to look at Caravaggio’s portrait of “The Sacrifice of Isaac” and see the intent in Abraham’s eyes, the force of the angel as he holds down Abraham’s arm with his hand holding a knife at Isaac’s throat and the horror on Isaac’s face to have absolutely no doubt just how traumatic that was for that young boy.  

I imagine that Isaac ran away to safety and security to stay with the only sane parent he knew – Hagar – and made there a family with her and his brother Ishmael.  Good for him. Good for them. How horrible for Abraham and Sarah. They are left to their old age without the presence or affection of either son – one banished to the desert to die and the other almost murdered by his father.

The story leads me to wonder: Did Abraham mean to kill Isaac so that his firstborn son, Ishmael, the child he had with his slave Hagar, would be his rightful heir? Or, was this just a plot he contrived to ensure that Isaac would, in fact, be recognized as his “legitimate” first-born son, because, see?, it was so decreed by God?

You know, it doesn’t really matter. What happened, happened. What matters is that Abraham never took responsibility for his actions. It was all God’s fault, see? He was only doing what God wanted him to do, right? So, he’s off the hook. And, see? God provided anyway. It was just a test. Just a test, is all. I don’t believe God is that cruel.

Am I saying that God does not provide? Am I saying that sometimes, when we are headed in the wrong direction, a “God-incidence” doesn’t happen and we are able to change course and spare ourselves and others from disaster?

As St. Paul likes to say, “By no means!” 

You and I have been in situations where, at the last minute – or, what we later learned was a place of imminent danger or disaster – “intuition” or a “hunch” or a “sense” came over us and we changed our mind or took another direction or made another choice. And later, all we can say is, “Thank God! The Lord provided.”

I won’t even try to pretend that I understand those moments in our lives. And, while I’m more than willing to ascribe generosity and grace and unconditional, salvific love to God, I also understand that I must take responsibility for my own life, for the choices and decisions I make – good and bad, and not let myself off the hook and ‘blame” them on God.  Or, fate. Or luck, good or bad.

Which, believe it or not, takes us to the Gospel for this morning, by way of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Paul says that we are no longer slaves of sin but slaves to grace. I love that: “a slave to grace”

No, he doesn’t say exactly that but he infers it. What he says is that we are “slaves to righteousness,” having been “set free from sin”.

Paul says, But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the teachings of Jesus.

From. The. Heart.

I want to stop here because the point is so gently nuanced you might zip right by it and miss the enormity of what Paul is saying here, which is this: We are no longer slaves to the letter of the law but free to follow the spirit of the law.

From. The. Heart. Free to follow insight. Intuition. To risk the illogical. To embrace the incomprehensible.

Paul is talking about the amazing gift Jesus has given us which is nothing less than the liberty to reclaim the gift given to us at the beginning of Creation. 

Because of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we now have the liberty to return to The Garden to redeem the gift of free will, first given to the first two humans.

Because of the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus, God knows – God understands – the human condition.  Because of Jesus, we not only have the gift of free will restored, but we also have the gift of grace when we fall short and miss the mark.

This means that we can take responsibility for our actions and choices and decisions because, no matter what we have done, God understands. God forgives us. God loves us. Unconditionally. God didn’t understand in the Garden. Having suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, God in Christ understands God’s own creation.

Imagine how Abraham might have felt had he known that! Imagine how differently he and Sarah would have acted – might have chosen – would have decided – about their sons Ishmael and Isaac. And, poor Aunt Hagar.

Imagine how differently you and I might act if we really took Paul at his word – if we really took Jesus at his word – and began to believe in the mystery of the gifts of free will and grace. Imagine if we took responsibility for our decisions – not only the ones that led to bad outcomes, but the ones that led to the good things, the wonderful things that happen in our life, by the mysterious grace of God.

When we understand life within the context of this tension of free will and the gift of grace, we know that nothing we do is apart from God and nothing will separate us from the love of God. Not even ourselves. Not our hubris or our humility.  

Which leads us to the Gospel. Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

You see, my friends, we all have within us a divine spark. Each. And. Every. One. Of. Us. No exceptions. We all have the potential to do enormous good and terrible wrong. It is our choice. And, it is our responsibility. We have free will AND the gift of grace no matter our choice.

Grace to be forgiven. Grace to bring glory to God. Grace to find hope, no matter how dark the future may seem.

Abraham named the mount where he almost killed his son, Abraham, “Yahweh Yireh” “The Lord will provide”. Abraham thought that the only thing the Lord provided him was a ram to sacrifice instead of his son.

Turns out, the Lord provided so much more, even than free will and grace.

What does the Lord provide? I think one answer can be found in the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving which is the last prayer in the Service of Morning Prayer.  In it, we pray in thanksgiving “for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.”

The means of grace. The hope of glory.

The prayer continues, And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Spirit, be all honor and glory, world without end.

The means of grace. The hope of glory.

Even Old Father Abraham and Old Mother Sarah, flawed and faulted as those two human beings were, knew both the means of grace and the hope of glory.

Let us not forget that it was Abraham, from afar and estranged from his son, who arranged for Isaac’s wife, Rebekah. It should also be remembered that Abraham insisted that the choice also be hers, made of her own free will.

Let us also remember this sentence in scripture, “And, Isaac loved Rebekah.”

Isaac loved Rebekah. It is one of the very few times that that said in the Bible about an arranged marriage. Co-incidence? Or, “God-incidence”?

Yahweh Yireh”  The Lord will provide.

Always.

Amen.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Belong. Believe. Become.


A sermon preached on Facebook Live Broadcast
Sirach 26:10: The Headstrong Daughter
June 21, 2020 - Pentecost III - Proper 7 A

Well, this (Matthew 10:24-39) is a very difficult gospel, isn’t it? Hard to hear. Harder to preach. (Trust me on this.)

So, let me start here: There’s a church not far from where I live – over on the north side of Coastal Highway in Lewes. It’s an independent non-denominational Christian church which has grown over the last 30 years or so from 15 people gathered in a living room to a community of over 600 that worships in a large, modern, state-of-the-art auditorium-style church.

I’ve recently noticed that they have a new banner outside the church with a new tag line which says, simply: “Belong. Believe. Become.” It’s a nice, catchy, easy-to-remember tag line, but it’s also their statement of evangelism.

Just an easy-peasy, three-step program. Just come and belong, we'll teach you what you need to believe in order to become a better Christian.

I’ve found those words coming to me every time I’ve reflected on this morning’s Gospel – Belong. Believe. Become. – especially as I reflect on the lives of the people I believe have lived out - and are living out - the difficult words of this difficult Gospel.

First, allow me just a few words on this tag line – Belong. Believe. Become. Now, I’m quite certain that, were I to sit down with one of the pastors of this church, we’d probably have strong differences in our theology and philosophy, as well as our Christology and liturgical beliefs.

I suspect, however, that we share the same love for Jesus, and our sense of Christian communion as summarized in the “Three B’s” of their tag line is very much the same.   
Some people come to church based on what they believe – or what they think they believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Other people come to church out of a deep longing to belong – to be part of something other than and bigger than themselves. They may not be able to articulate what they believe, and they may not even know how to say how hungry they are for meaning and purpose in their lives. All they know is that they are at a point in their lives where they want to be a part of something and stand for something and become the person who does something with their life.

If we’re honest, more than a few of us came to The Episcopal Church for these very reasons. I’m sure there is hardcore data somewhere “in the Google” but an informal survey on any given Sunday will reveal that most members came to The Episcopal Church from other denominations. 

Indeed, I fondly remember Bishop Jack Spong beginning a sermon with the words, “Friends . . . Romans . . . . former Romans .  . . .”.

Many of us found ourselves in The Episcopal Church in reaction to a negative experience in other denominations. The reasons will sound familiar: Formerly divorced people who wanted to remarry; people – or people who love people – whose sexual orientation is described as “inherently disordered”; or women who found opportunities for ministry in the church limited to church school or choir and the closest she could get to the altar was to “do the dishes and the laundry” after Communion. 

That was all very different in The Episcopal Church - at least beginning in the late 70s.

Belong. Believe. Become. It’s true that, once we feel as if we belong in a church, we begin to search for meaning and purpose in that church. We want to know what it is Episcopalians believe. And, in some places, a solid answer is difficult to ascertain.

In The Episcopal Church, we like to talk about our dedication to “diversity and inclusivity”. Some of us talking about our “Big Tent Theology” – which allows plenty of room for low church, high church, and broad church expressions of what it is we believe.

A classic example of Episcopal tolerance – and wit – is the of’t stated response to the question, “Do Episcopalians believe in private confession?” The answer is: “All may. Some should. None must.” 

Such openness and embrace of diversity allow some of us to flourish and become that which God had in mind for us when we were created. Others of us come to feel intensely uncomfortable with that sort of openness. 

Yes, we want the church to stand for something, but not political, please. ”. This, despite the fact that more Presidents have been Episcopalian (11) – than any other denomination. And, it's often the very people who proudly tell you about "the glory of their power" who will tut-tut and tsk-tsk about how the church has gotten "too political". 

I've discovered that when some Episcopalians talk about it being "too political" what they really mean is "you're making me uncomfortable/uneasy". But, if we talked about, say, tax reform, I have a sneaking suspicion that that would land easily on some ears.

And, for goodness sake, don’t take sides in a conflict or dispute! Indeed, some Episcopalians take pride in recalling that The Episcopal Church used to be known as “The Switzerland of Christianity.” Of course, others will name that same dynamic as Episcopalians being “A Social Club at Prayer,” or “God’s Frozen Chosen.”

Now, this is not a class entitled “Welcome to The Episcopal Church” and I will try to restrain myself but I personally believe that the focus, the past 30 years, on the pragmatics and mechanics of our faith has unfortunately led to a focus on identity politics and what some refer to as “the inclusion wars.”

This has resulted, ironically, in the exodus of many people from the church, not because they didn’t feel included but because they felt that the power-balance which had favored them was now being disturbed. Additionally, the constant bickering and fighting didn’t make them feel welcome, despite our relentlessly cheerful motto: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”

And, here’s where any idea that “Belong. Believe. Become.,” is an easy process of evangelism crashes headlong into this morning’s gospel.

Jesus continues to give advice to his apostles and all who do the work of evangelization. He warns that some of those who proclaim the Gospel are going to be threatened even with losing their lives, a fact that is testified to by a long list of martyrs over the centuries. 

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  . . . . Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” 
YIKES, right?   

So, what am I joining here? Is this a church with a death-wish culture? Why would I join a religious movement which sounds hell-bent on destroying families and fomenting crisis and strife and division? 

Let me break this down. 

Actually, what Jesus is saying is that physical death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Death is a reality we are all going to have to face sooner or later anyway. 

Jesus is teaching his disciples – ancient and modern – that far worse than physical death is the "loss of one's soul", that is, the death of one's integrity. Jesus is saying that there are some values which transcend our physical survival. To betray such a value in order to live a bit longer is to lose one's soul. 

There have been Christians who understood this teaching of Jesus and risked their lives for what they understood it meant to “belong, believe and become.” I'll briefly mention three that pop immediately to mind. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian known for his opposition to Hitler and all he stood for. His ties to a conspiracy to overthrow the Nazi regime led to his execution in a German concentration camp in the waning days of WWII.

Thomas More, chancellor to King Henry VIII, who opposed the Reformation, understood this. He refused to recognize the King as the head of the Church of England and to annul the King’s marriage to Catharine of Aragon. When he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy, he was tried, found guilty, and executed for treason.

Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador clearly understood this. On March 24, 1980, he delivered a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. He then walked a few steps from the pulpit to the center of the altar to preside at Holy Eucharist and was executed by a man who fired one – possibly two – bullets into his heart.  

Bonhoeffer, More, Romero and many, many others understood the cost of discipleship. Jesus is telling us that, to be unfaithful to our deepest beliefs and convictions is a fate worse than death.  

Now, you don’t have to be a Bonhoeffer, More or Romero to be a faithful disciple. 

Every time a person of color stands up and says, “No. Stop. I know who I am. I am a child of God. You can assign me to whatever race you want, but I know I belong to the human race. I have read the same scriptures as you and I believe that I am loved by God. And, I will not become what you want me to be. I will be strong. I will be brave. I will become all that God intended for me when I was created and put on this earth.”

And, every time a gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender person stands up, or a woman who is being abused by her husband or domestic partner, or a person with disabilities speaks up and says, “No. Stop. I belong. I believe. I will become,” they have accepted the challenge of this Gospel are taking the risks of living it out and being faithful to the teachings of Jesus. 

Belong, believe, and become is not an easy, three-step evangelism program. Not in The Episcopal Church, anyway, or many churches that take seriously these words of Jesus. It takes strength and courage to live your life with authenticity and integrity. 

That can be accomplished by belonging to a community of faith which takes seriously its baptism vows, and allows you to work out, within an "Outline of Faith"(otherwise known as Catechism), what it is you believe, and helps you to become that which God intended at your creation.

“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
As difficult and chaotic as are these days, there has never been a time for which we have been better prepared. It was for times like these that we were meant to be Christians, to belong to a church that believes in justice and peace and the dignity of every human being so that we may become more fully and authentically the Body of Christ.

We belong. We believe. We become.    

Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi  - Pentecost II (Proper 6 A)
A Sermon broadcast on Facebook Live - Sirach 26:10
June 14, 2020


I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.

The last time I had the privilege of presiding at – and partaking of – Eucharist was the Second Sunday in Lent. That was March 22nd, or 14 weeks ago. But, hey, who’s counting?

I know many of you have also been unintentionally fasting from communion as long as I have. I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. I have a craving deep in my soul.

I have great reverence for the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist. Which is precisely why I’ve chosen to abstain from presiding over or partaking in Communion during the pandemic. I feel called to stand in solidarity with the sacrifices of the laity vs the sacrifice of the mass.

I’m not out to win an award. It's just how my conscience guides me.

It’s important to remember what our Catechism or Outline of Faith teaches us about the Eucharist. You’ll remember it as soon as I say it  
“The sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain signs by which we receive that grace.” (BCP 857).
This means that the bread and wine are symbols that aren’t absolutely necessary for God’s grace and the presence of God’s love in our midst. 
One of my dearest friends, Lindy, an itinerant teacher who is presently in Turkey said, 
“Lots of Anglicans live in places where they have to go for months on end without a Eucharistic service. We are doing just fine, thank you. And I am not the only one to have discovered that the outward signs we sometimes miss turn out to have just been pointers to the kind of sacramental life we crave?”
By a coincidence of the calendar, this past Thursday was the Feast of Corpus Christi, ‘Corpus Christi’ being the old Latin words for “Body of Christ”. Traditionally it is celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday but many congregations – Roman Catholic and Episcopal Churches with a high Anglo-Catholic piety as well as some Lutheran churches – observe this feast on this very Sunday.

Today, many churches will be lamenting their inability to have a great, festive celebration with a procession of the host as a prominent part of the celebration.  

The host is placed in a magnificent monstrance – an elaborate golden holder with a transparent receptacle in the center in which a consecrated host is displayed.

The priest wears a white humeral veil, sort of like a shawl, and, covering her hands in it, holds up the monstrance as it is processed around the church. In some places, a rectangular shaped cloth canopy with four poles in the corner is carried, covering the monstrance and protecting it from the elements while creating a sacred space which identifies the head of the procession for the folks in the back.

When I was a child, I lived for the feast of Corpus Christi. I LOVED it. All of it: The joyful yet quiet solemnity. The not-yet-ready-for-prime-time-pick-up band of trumpet, tuba, flute and base drum that played music as we processed. I especially loved it that we went right out the front door of the church and up the street, round the block and back to the church again to the Boom-Boom-Boom of the drum.

Every year, someone from the First Communion Class would get to make a little speech and say a prayer half way through the procession. One year, I was chosen because I could speak in English and Portuguese. 

My parents were so proud. My grandmother was out of her mind with joy and pride. It was the moment I knew that prayers could be answered because I had been praying for this privilege ever since – well, for as long as I could remember. 

It was also the first time I knew that one could cry tears of joy. I was deliriously happy.

I was blissfully unaware of how close we were all skirting to something akin to idolatry. I don’t think it would have mattered if someone had sat me down and told me. All I knew is that this is what we did as Catholics and this year, I was getting to do something that was getting really, really close to something that usually only boys get to do. And THAT mattered. A lot. A WHOLE lot.

So, it’s no surprise that this was the memory that surfaced when, years later, as a priest with 5 years of experience under her belt, I was asked by the rector of a nose-bleed high Anglo-Catholic congregation, to take part in their celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. I got to chant the benediction before the Lauda Sion. I got to wear the white humeral veil. I got to hold and process with the monstrance.

I was positively dizzy. But, the greater thing was that the rector of this high Anglo-Catholic church had been adamantly opposed to the ordination of women. He was British. Very British. From Australia, British where there were not yet women clergy. Very formal. Deeply reserved. A difficult read under the best of circumstances.

I confess that I had set my sights on him and was relentless in my pursuit to win him over. I worked overtime to be charming, even as I was careful to be subtle in letting him know that I knew church history and liturgics, just nodding at the appropriate moments as he pontificated, and discretely filling in the name of the saint or year or Pope in a rare moment when he came up for air.

I was, in a word, shameless. But, it worked. And, as the crowning glory of my Year of Relentless Pursuit, he asked me to preside at the Feast of Corpus Christi. 

I immediately set about to learn all the liturgical dance steps as well as the music and words of the Gregorian chants. I worked hard not to embarrass myself or to make him doubt his faith in my abilities – and, of course, to make Jesus proud.

Suddenly, the Feast of Corpus Christi was upon us. It was a Sunday evening service. I carefully selected one of my more subdued, gray frocks. It was a simple shirtdress with a very full skirt. It looked appropriately monastic. The rector loved it and complimented me on it. “And who are we wearing?” he asked. “Banana Republic,” said I. “Ah, yes,” he said, in his clipped British cadence, and, without changing expression, said, “Bah-nah-nah Republic. Of course it is. How did I not know?”

As the only woman in the liturgical party, I was determined to do my very best. And, I did. Until I had to kneel before the open tabernacle for Father to put the host into the monstrance.

Unfortunately, my right knee knelt just a little too low on the full skirt of my dress and, when I did – and to my immediate horror – I began to list ever so slowly to the right looking as if I was going to fall. I was later told that it was the most graceful, slow almost-descent into oblivion anyone had ever witnessed. I never let go of that monstrance, however. I could fall, but not Jesus. Not on my watch.

Suddenly, mysteriously, two of the four canopy bearers appeared from out of nowhere and placed their hands under my arms and lifted me up slowly and reverently set me down right. 

My skirt behaved this time and I had plenty of room to kneel without placing Jesus in harm’s way again.

Father never missed a beat and never changed facial expression. He placed the host into the monstrance and, as he did, leaned-in to whisper in my ear, “Did we slip on our Bah-nah-nah Republic?” I continued to hold my own as well as a sense of decorum and said, “Forgive me, Father, for I have slipped.”

At which point, he giggled. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a klutz like me. What else was I to do? Of course I, like Sarah before me, laughed at the sound of Holy Preposterousness – especially when it came from the Holy of Holies.

In today’s Gospel lesson (from Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23), we hear Jesus commissioning the 12 and sending out them out as his disciples. His instructions to them were to keep it simple. To travel light. To meet people where they are, even if where they are is not to welcome you in peace.

I think we forget, sometimes, that Jesus didn’t call us to be a church. He certainly didn’t call us to be a building. We are called to be a movement. Which is why we need to travel light. 

We are called to think of God not as a noun but as a verb. We are “to God” – to seek out the divine spark in others and to be a divine spark for others who sit in darkness and despair. To nourish and tend to each other and ourselves.

We forget, sometimes, as my friend Lindy says, that

the sacramental signs we sometimes miss turn out to have just been pointers to the kind of sacramental life we crave.
The feast of Corpus Christi is a celebration of the fact that God often comes to us in very real, very tangible but surprising and mysterious ways. Jesus taught us that he would come to us as food – as nourishment – for we're always hungry for something.

Sometimes we need a meal or a drink; other times we crave companionship or affirmation or a word of praise which might just make our day.

What do you crave? What might be missing at this time in your life? What are you hungry for?

These days I find myself hungry for our common good which is supported not just by a few interest groups but by the majority of our people.

I find myself hungry for hope, for news that's uplifting and reassuring.

I'm hungry for health and healing, for the coronavirus to be behind us, and for justice and peace to replace the injustice and turmoil in our country.

I'm hungry for hope for our planet, that it might be cared for by the global community and not just a few "green" organizations.

I'm always hungry for people in our church community who are our future saints, who model Jesus' love and provide inspiration to all of us to see how God is working in our lives.

Especially in this time in our common lives, I hope we focus less on what we don’t have and more on all that we do have.

I hope we open our eyes to see what others do not have and share what we have with others. I hope we stand in solidarity with those who suffer and work for change.

In this time of lessening isolation and spiritual sacrifice, I hope we continue to be the Corpus Christie – the Body of Christ – for others.

After we are allowed to gather, once again, in our church buildings, may we continue to find ways to nourish and sustain each other, ourselves, and all of God’s creatures and creation on this planet Earth, our island home.

And, may the sacramental signs we have missed become the kind of sacramental life we crave.

Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

But some doubted



“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”
A Sermon for Trinity Sunday
Live broadcast at Sirach 26:10 on Facebook
June 7, 2020 

This is a sermon about doubt, which, I think, is exactly what this particular Trinity Sunday, at this particular moment in our lives, is about. Doubt.

Over the years I have landed in different places about the Doctrine of The Trinity. I’ve been apathetic. I mean, I’ve thought, seriously, at the end of the day, what does The Trinity matter? Except to the theologians?

At other times, I’ve been heretical, scoffing at those who insist that the only possible answer is that it is a “deep mystery”. Why can’t the Trinity be as St. Francis explained it, using the three-leaf shamrock to explain that while each of the leaves were separate they were all part of one shamrock?

That certainly sat well on the ears of the Irish for whom the Trinity Knot or triquetra was used to symbolic and honor the Mother, Maiden, and Crone of the neo-pagan triple goddess. But, the good Fathers of the church said that was a heresy known as “Partialism” or "Sabellianism". The Trinity, they said, is not about three distinctive persons of he Godhead but are different parts OF God, each composing 1/3 of the divine.

The Church Fathers also struck down Modalism (The Trinity was like the three different states of water: liquid, ice, and vapor), and Arianism (The sun is a star, light and heat – not creations of themselves but creatures of the star). 

The only acceptable answer for the institutional church is that The Trinity is such a deep mystery that it is a matter of faith.

And, if you don’t have faith, you obviously are not a true believer, for a true believer does not have doubt but, well, believes. 

Which means, of course, believing what you are told, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of “the faith first received from thefathers”, about the absolutism of it, and how that sort of line-in-the-sand, my-way-or-the-highway kind of thinking infects so much of our lives. 

I don’t know if it creates tribalism or is a product of tribalism but of one thing I’m certain: It doesn’t have much to do with God.

So, here’s my heresy about the Trinity. 
I’m quite sure I don’t know what it is but I am certain of the message. The idea of Trinity is all about relationships. The notion of The Trinity is a pathway into a relationship with God by being in relationship with others.
Now, that’s not my heresy. I didn’t think that up by myself. There’s a brilliant theologian and Episcopal priest named Marilyn McCord Adams who wrote about it extensively. In her work as a theologian, she did not try to answer the question, ‘Why did God permit all the evils that we know about?’ Rather she asked, ‘What can God do to make our existence a great good to us, without trivializing the horrendous evils that we know about?’

Which lead her directly into the middle of the middle of the mystery of the Trinity as a model for a relationship with God as a relationship we have with each other in community. 

Or, as theologian Carter Heyward once wrote, our most intimate relationships are a reflection of our relationship WITH God, AND, our relationship with God is reflected IN our most intimate relationships with others.

This is why, when I have a couple in for marital counseling and they tell me that their marriage is in trouble, one of the first questions I ask is, “So, how’s your prayer life?” 

Ninety-percent of the time, I get a blank stare followed by a quizzical look. What makes sense to me is that if you are not in regular communication with God, why would you be surprised that your communication with your life partner is suffering? And, vise versa.

So, now I’ve probably thoroughly confused at least some of you, I hope I’ve established my credentials as a bone fide heretic. Let me just say that I said all of that to say this:

As I anticipated watching the 12th consecutive night of protests and demonstrations, I’ve been thinking a lot about the words “us” and “we” – the pronouns of the first person plural – and “our”. 

I’ve been thinking about the violent deaths of the most recent Trinity of Deaths of Black People Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd – especially in this time of isolation required by the COVID pandemic.

And, I’ve been thinking about Christian Cooper, the Black man, a Harvard Graduate, who was out bird watching, who asked a White woman named Amy Cooper (no relation) to put her dog on a leash. In response, the woman said she would tell the police that “an African-American man is threatening my life” before dialing 911. 

She was actually quite maliciously brilliant. She knew exactly how to deal with an uppity Black man, telling her what to do with her dog, by using her assumed, unexamined privilege as a white person.

I’ve been questioning my own spiritual triquetra, the internal mysterious trinity of my soul. It’s been really hard work to question my “we,” my “us,” and the privilege and assumptions that are in those tiny two-letter words that encompass so much and assume so much more.  

Especially in racial terms, I’m thinking about what it means, just for starters, for me to inhabit a White body, as opposed to being in a Black body. 

I understand that race is not a biological but a social construct – a way to deal with the great diversity of people. Indeed, race, like racial identity can be fluid, especially in this multi-racial culture and society in which we live.  

What I don’t understand is the assignment of superiority or inferiority, goodness or evil, intelligence or ignorance, based on the color of one’s skin, or the origin of one’s birth, or the assignment of race.

And, I’ve been thinking that that act of distinguishing, that curiosity, that getting conscious of the “we” – especially in terms of what I’ve been taught or believe about my relationship with God and the Trinity – is the beginning of the work, the new but old, old, ancient work, the human race is being called to do – to try to make the “myth” of “us” into a reality.

We keep trying to put band-aids on something that is so fundamentally broken, from inception, that a band-aid is not going to do it. 

We have to be brave enough to reimagine what our lives would look like. We can’t underestimate the entrenched power of the structures and the systems that we’ve built to move us in a certain direction, a certain dehumanizing direction. 

We have to ask ourselves in bold ways, what does it mean for us to be community to each other? And if we’re going to be community, what should our neighborhood look like? How should our streets function?

So, I’ve been asking myself how it is I will – we will – emerge after the twin pandemics of COVID and racism? How will societal structures and institutions need to be rebuilt in order to gain the public trust? 

How will ‘church’ look after there’s a vaccine and we all feel relatively “safe” again, now that we know that once you move from first person singular to first-person plural, “safety” is pretty much just an illusion?

If safety is an illusion, how – if at all – does that change our relationship with God? And, if our relationship with God has changed, how will that change and transform our relationship with others?

In Matthew’s Gospel (28:16-20), we read: The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.”

If some of the first disciples saw Jesus and still doubted, might we also be forgiven our doubt? Our uncertainty? Our reservation? Our skepticism? Especially after the safe, secure world we had once known, is now turned upside down? Especially since even the church – that bulwark of certainty and security and unchangeable reliability – seems to have been changed and transformed completely?

I will leave you with those questions in hopes you find answers – or, at least, some comfort – in these last words of Jesus:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Amen.