Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Still More Excellent Way

Scripture for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost includes Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15 and 2:23-24; II Corinthians 8:7-15; Mark 5:21-43

What’s going on in that reading from St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians? More than meets the ear.

We think of Paul as a man of high principles and sharp opinions. Listening in to his email to the Church at Corinth reveals him to have been also an insightful persuader, and a gifted fundraiser.

It makes the fundraiser’s job easier when there’s a high purpose at stake. The campaign that Paul is waging is not to erect a cathedral or endow a diocese. The catacombs and private upper rooms were sufficient for gathering the Jesus followers on the Lord’s Day, and there were no long-range plans to finance in this first generation of Church. The immediacy of the present drove their mission, and the trustworthiness of the Spirit of God shaped their attitudes and their theologies.

As a result, the whole enchilada—mission, attitude, theology—was being served up by a community of people who had no institutional walls to contain them. The places they met in were like safe houses: they had to be, since the emperor could be trusted to be seriously prejudiced against any religion that dared believe in and proclaim and serve a divine power higher than the emperor.

But these first-generation Christians didn’t mistake what happened within the safety of those gathering spots as being their mission. What happened in the breaking of the bread and the praying together and the reading of e-mail from other churches and itinerant apostles was joyful renewal of their powers of faith and hope and love, recharging their batteries from the risen and present Christ whom they pressed in on to but touch the hem of his clothing, the fabric of their fellowship, the table cloth of his altar, the napkins they would fill with broken bread left over, to be taken home as daily bread around their kitchen tables, and holy take-out to the sick, the frightened, the imprisoned.

All that was not so much their mission as their sabbath renewal for mission. Just as their Lord had moved about in towns and villages practicing healing touch and transformative encounter and radical sharing of food and friendship, so this first generation of church knew itself called to locate mission beyond protective walls. In a brutal and self-serving imperial culture, such generosity went far, awakening humane instincts, buffing up the image of God within, inspiring the experience of Spirit among, revealing God at work under the crust of Roman rule and right in the grind of the daily struggle.

And more: What makes grace amazing to St. Paul is how it knocks down barriers: Here he is, in this letter today, writing to a mostly Gentile Greek community in Corinth, encouraging them to follow the example of the Macedonian followers of Jesus and generously take part in the collection Paul is overseeing, raising funds for the poverty-stricken believers in Jerusalem, a mostly Jewish community of Jesus followers.

What’s so worth catching in that layer of the story is how the church’s mission is to facilitate relationship, reconciliation, between the camps of an Us and Them world: Gentile Greek Jesus-believers are being asked to support and assist Jewish Jesus-believers (and I’ll bet that included their extended families, whether Jesus-believers or not). This story is about the Spirit of God at work coaching the church to get it right for the sake of the world. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for strangers… to lay down old estrangement for the sake of new unity.

This is excellent background music on a day when we are privileged to welcome Brooke Mead, the Program Coordinator at the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield. The Berkshire Immigrant Center provides citizenship assistance, immigration information, advocacy, referrals and counseling to the growing immigrant communities in Berkshire County. Brooke has been immersed in this work for thirteen years.

At BIC, she manages a caseload of more than five hundred clients annually and her many roles range from workshop provider to immigration case specialist. She runs immigration law clinics, meets with local schools, social services and law enforcement officials, supervises student interns and volunteers, and provides assistance with resettlement issues as well as helping clients navigate tough immigration law.

We are bipolar in our attitudes towards immigrants. Nationally, the conversation appears to be set in a collision of cultures, politically an Us against Them sort of world. Locally, we seem to remember that everyone needs a hand at some point, and that each of us, through our forebears, came from somewhere else. Migration is as commonly human as birth and death. The threat of death plays its part in migration, and the hope of new life surely motivates such a risky venture. While it may be simple-minded of me to put it this way, it appears that at the same moment that the national debate is fraught and fractured, local understanding and compassion seem free to move. What the politicians in Washington don’t get (or can’t admit they do), the locals get.

And then there’s Donald Trump. He really doesn’t get it. On the other hand, there may be a silver lining in well-publicized absurdity: maybe the fear of open borders will be eclipsed by a dread of being associated with closed-mindedness.

It is St. Paul’s open-mindedness that I admire. Do you recall his most famous words? “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” I Corinthians, chapter 13, verse 1. That powerful verse follows verse 31 of chapter 12: “Strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.”

The commentator says that much of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is “devoted to countering their tendency to use every occasion to see if they can one-up each other (for example, who is wise, who has the freedom to eat what, who has which spiritual gift.” Excelling was an indoor sport for the Corinthian Christians.

In today’s portion of his second letter, notice how Paul reels them in: “Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking”—the collection for the victims of crisis in Jerusalem.

Generous outreaching stewardship is not peripheral to the Jesus movement. It is central to our mission of reconciling love. As Paul sings the good news today, Jesus Christ’s generosity to us gives the pitch we are to rise to as we sing his praise by our actions.

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear,” insists our patron St. John (I John 4:18). In that spirit, Paul urges his hearers to complete (one could say perfect) their eagerness to excel and to do so according to their means. He says, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others from across borders and pressure on you here at home, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’”

That quotation comes from the Book of Exodus, where the Israelites, immigrants fleeing oppression in Egypt, discover an edible substance like frost on the ground, and would forever extol God’s providence in feeding them bread from heaven, manna in the wilderness, evidence that God goes with his migrating people.

But this manna could not be stored, hoarding it spoiled it. Its purpose was to provide sufficient daily bread, each person finding enough.

We celebrate today the work and witness of all who help immigrants find enough for the journey and the resettling. What roles are there for more of us to help that need-meeting, that manna-giving? And for more ways to be open to experiencing their abundance of courage, enthusiasm, and joy?

Paul teaches us to recognize the abundance we will one day find shared with us by the same people we have helped. Twenty of us had a taste of this mutuality on Tuesday, when Bishop Abraham Nhial of South Sudan visited us here. One of the famous Lost Boys of Sudan, he found his way to this country where the opportunities of college and seminary came to him like manna, like a dream made real. He was made a bishop while still in his thirties, perhaps the youngest in Anglican history.

While he does not dwell on the past, he makes his point: that crossing deserts barefoot, eluding predators on two legs and on four, swimming across crocodile-infested rivers forever changes one’s priorities, appreciation of grace, clarity of perspective, definition of excellence.

His abundance is best described by Paul’s language: faith, hope, love, the greatest of these being love. Hence his commitment to help South Sudan embrace a process of truth-telling and reconciliation like the one in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-genocide Rwanda. And love, the queen of graces, informs also his commitment to the education of girls in South Sudan, and his passion for insisting that while there are two Sudanese nations, there is one Sudanese Episcopal Church that will resist the building of walls that reinforce the paradigm of an Us-against-Them kind of world.

There is a story of what one person’s immigration may accomplish in amazing circles of grace drawn whole, complete, excellent. His story makes the point St. Paul drives home to the Corinthians, a point explained so well by commentator J. Paul Sampley that I want his to be the closing words in this sermon.

“Paul’s notion that we, recipients of God’s grace, must pass it on, that we must finish the circle by redirecting it through us to someone else, is awesome. Think about what it says about human life in its daily routine: It says that every encounter with another person is an opportunity to be a channel of God’s grace. In fact, not to think of grace that way is probably to cheat God and certainly to cheat others, because it arrogates grace to us as a sort of possession whose goal and end is us as individuals and not us as community. God’s grace is not to be trifled with or to be taken lightly. It comes into the world, finding expression through people. Grace achieves its goal, it becomes the grace it was intended to be, only as it reaches ever more and more people. That is why the collection for the saints (in Jerusalem) was not just an option that (one church or another) might choose to engage in; it was a joyful obligation…”

That is also why we give time today to learn about immigration and what is needed to welcome and assist our newest neighbors.

(J. Paul Sampley’s commentary on the Second Letter to the Corinthians is found in Volume XI of “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 2000.)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wet with Our Tears

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 38:1-11; II Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

One day last week, I met with Asher and his Dad. That was because I thought it might be good if Asher and I had a little face time together before today. Not long ago, either Bill or Alix asked me a question about their son’s baptism: I think it was, “How do you baptize a four-year-old?” And I answered, “With a squirt gun.” It didn’t take long to realize that this was a bit flippant, and their question really was an invitation to me to think it through. What better way than to spend some time together?

So Asher helped me water the palm tree that we’ve had recently at the font. Then we replenished the water in the bowl of the prayer nook, where people float the candles they’ve lit in prayer. By then, we’d begun naming many ways that water is part of our lives. We wash dishes. We wash cars. We sweat. We take baths. And, of course, we drink water. Without it, we would shrivel up and blow away.

We didn’t think of rain falling on thirsty gardens and lawns.

Nor did we get as far as sailing boats on it. Or surviving great windstorms when waves beat into the boat. But if the object is to appreciate why water is used in holy baptism, navigation and survival deserve to be named.

And tears. We got sweat, but we didn’t think of tears. Yet the broken hearts of our nation this past week surely make tears such an important part of the significance of water. As we cry, we grieve, we heal. And we wonder how many tears will it take to cleanse this nation of racial hatred.

When the water of baptism is poured and blessed at the font in a few minutes, we will be reminded of yet more meanings of the gift of water.

“Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.” And today’s reading from the Book of Job insists that God’s claim upon the earth, the stars, and the sea puts us in our place not as owners but as stewards of life.”

“Through water, God led the children of Israel out of their bondage… into the land of promise.” In its own way, this reminds us how obscene racial hatred is, lacking compassion for fellow human beings whose journeys across hazardous oceans brought them into bondage, not freedom—economic bondage which still, despite the oceans of tears shed in our Civil War, and the flood of tears shed throughout generations of Jim Crow, economic bondage still claims a vise grip on so many.

“In water, 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.” Asher and Bill and I saw that story drawn in glass above the altar, at the top of that second window. And right below, Jesus is seated with children in his lap and at his feet, showing clearly how he gives to each of us, from as early in life as can be, the very same love that God has given him.

That love, God’s love for us, each of us, one at a time, is what we celebrate in every baptism. And as one person comes to the font today to set his sights on learning that love, practicing that love, growing that love, in the same moments of his baptism, each one of us is invited to renew the baptismal agreement (for which “covenant” is a fancier word), the agreement God wants from us.

Still wet from the tears of these past few days, we renew today our agreement to persevere in resisting evil… to seek and serve Christ in all persons… to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

Wednesday night, in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, eleven people offered this very kind of love, God’s love, to Dylann Roof, but he had no room, no use, no respect, no desire for such love as came to him in that circle of generosity created by Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, The Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, DePayne Middleton- Doctor, Felecia Sanders, Cynthia Taylor, and Sharonda Coleman- Singleton.

He broke that circle with his hatred, and with the gun he carried he broke the life and the family circle of nine of those people who had made a place for him among them.

Still wet in the blood of Roof’s gun violence, our nation must again choose either to reform or to keep condoning the appalling ease with which guns are obtained and carried and used.

Still wet in the water of baptism today, we will make good on our promises to practice the love that will prove stronger than death, the love that will be the antidote to what poisons the well of this nation.

This is also the love that knows how to answer the question Jesus asks of each of us: “Why are you afraid?”

We are in the same boat as those disciples. We have ample reason to be afraid. Bad enough when brutal senseless mind-numbing violence occurs half a globe and two or three oceans away; but when it swamps our own boat—and I expect you’ll agree that this attempted desecration of one house of prayer is an invasion of all spaces, both sacred and civic—when this hatred worms its way into spaces we have pledged to make safe for all, then it is natural to fear.

But Jesus will not let us get away with locking the doors of this house of prayer which have been open at least daytimes for all its 121 years. The answer is not to circle our wagons. Nor is it to issue IDs for admission to bible study. Jesus will teach us precisely what he taught his disciples in that boat: that to be human is to be vulnerable, and to know ourselves to be vulnerable creatures is how we will face both reality and eternity honestly and openly.

Jesus calls us to trust him. To trust his presence not to protect us from vulnerability, but to equip us for the reality of the present moment that is fully known to him, and to equip us for eternal life which, we rejoice to affirm today, is given to us as sheer gift, amazing grace.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” they ask him. And so do we.

Yet it will never be otherwise with this precious gift of life. The religion opened to Asher today through his baptism does not pretend otherwise. As St. Paul puts it, in the language of our second reading, “What part of afflictions, hardships, and calamities do you not understand? If these happened to me, they will happen to you. Be ready for them. When they come, keep trusting the one who knows the next step.”

Jesus hears his disciples ask whether he cares that they are perishing. What else can he be thinking but, “And so am I.” And it’s right then that what he demonstrates to them is courageous leadership facing into the windstorm and a deep marshaling of the ability to bestow peace and still chaos. His vulnerability does not limit his powers. His vulnerability inspires countless generations to believe that they—we—are the hands and feet, the body, the eyes of Jesus in our day. We are practitioners of his powers.

How the nation and the world need those powers now. How we need the baptismal agreement to renew in us the conviction that these powers are given, planted in baptism, cultivated by parents and siblings, Godparents and community. How fortunate we are, in the shadow and aftermath of these days of our tears, to get wet today with Asher in his baptism.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Essence of Church

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost includes Ezekiel 17:22-24; II Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4: 26-34

“With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

What do you think it’s like, being a teacher who has to explain everything to the supposedly star pupils in the class?

What’s it like, being identified as high achievers in the class, but nonetheless needing everything to be explained?

And what’s the dynamic at work among all the rest of the students who aren’t invited to those private sessions?

The four Gospels can’t tell the Gospel story, the Good News, without commenting on certain facts of life. Like, that some who encounter Jesus are quick studies, while some require coaching, and yet others will walk away from the encounter clueless as to what it was all about.

Put that another way: There is more than one kind of intelligence, more than one form of aptitude, and (as the apostle Paul was fond of saying) a variety of spiritual gifts. Intelligence comes in a rainbow of styles: cognitive, social, emotional, intuitive, organizational. Aptitude embraces artistic ability, language fluency, mechanical skill, leadership. And St. Paul’s several lists of spiritual gifts and spiritual fruits could keep us going all morning.

Put in yet another way, the Jesus movement is forever remembered by its fruits, its results in fulfilling its mission to (says our collect of the day) “proclaim God’s truth with boldness and minister God’s justice with compassion.” The Jesus movement shapes an apostolic community, in which those who get it give it. Those who get the message know they are entrusted with proclaiming it. Those who are loved by Jesus into new knowledge of who and whose they are give away that love to others as generously as they’ve gotten it. Those who are forgiven forgive. We know we are called to reconcile—to set right—all people to one another and to God. We come to know ourselves as people sent to embody the ministry of Jesus Christ in the world.

All this knowing engages the whole human being. We know not through one hemisphere of a brain dominated by either logical and analytical and objective processing of information or by the other hemisphere’s intuitive, conceptual, and subjective kinds of knowing; our knowing occurs through both hemispheres of the brain communicating to one another and working together.

The whole of our knowing requires a reconciling within us that may start within the brain’s hemispheres talking to one another; but surely our customary inventory includes the heart’s ways of knowing, and the instincts of the gut, the ethics of the backbone, and the reflexes of our muscles. All told, and all functioning, our knowings process our encounters and make relational sense of our world. In doing that wondrous work, imagination and belief play their roles as we encounter not just the immanence of flesh but also the transcendence of spirit.

Imagination and belief played a big part in our Vestry’s recent Day Away at Sheep Hill Farm, home of Williamstown’s Rural Lands Foundation. Our Wardens, Claudia Ellet and Margot Sanger, with the help of Canon Pam Mott from the Bishop’s staff, organized a decidedly different sort of Day Away.

It was a come-alive gorgeous day on May 30, and we had the run of the place. What had been arranged for us goes by the nickname Visual Explorer. Taking over the old main barn, Pam had spread out on tables and across wide swaths of the floor, 250 pictures, some photographs, some paintings, some archival drawings, just the most eclectic batch of images you’d ever expect to see. Our task was to consider and explore every image, silently, until each person had found one that best illustrates the essence of Church. The essence of Church. We then found out way into threesomes to share what it was each of us had found in the image that had spoken so clearly.

I could never have expected to choose what I did: a 19th-century painting of an Italian village of that same period, the town’s residents gathered on the plaza outside the parish church and adjacent school. I couldn’t tell exactly what was happening on that plaza, except that the town’s young men were being sent off—perhaps to war (though no one had alarm in their faces), perhaps on a more peaceable mission (a football tournament, who knows?)—wives kissing their husbands, children offering their fathers bouquets, and the young men shouldering great backpacks, evidence of an important mission ahead. Better than 249 other images, this one (quirky as it was) conveyed to me the essence of Church: A responsive community of people who know they are called, and are acting on it.

Verbalizing what each image represented was part of our task. How often the word “community” was heard. One Vestry member had chosen—I’m not making this up-- a photo of a cluster of meerkats. Meerkats! Those sleek creatures with four legs but famously vertical, each of the cats looking off at a different angle suggesting that the essence of Church is a community whose individual members support the whole by looking in different directions as they search, anticipating opportunity or danger. Another member’s image conveyed a similar insight: that community is a working-together of groups that become aware that each individual brings value to the whole, and it is often the outliers who signal what we need to know.

Other takes on the essence of Church: God’s workshop where each one of us is essential. Helping others connects the Church to the wider world. Being bathed in the light of God’s love for all. A community of save haven to face life’s challenges. And a photo of an open air market inspired this: The Church is God’s produce brought to be useful and available by the hands of his people. (That’s a timely image, since last week the first twelve bags of lettuce and spinach were harvested from the Garden of Eatin’ out back, and brought to the Friendship Center food pantry.)

This was the morning task, imagining, reflecting, sharing. In the afternoon, the same pattern, to find the image that best shows the outward and visible sign of the Church’s essence. Actually, I believe the instruction was to free ourselves from the constraints of church budgets and the press of maintaining church buildings, then ask ourselves what this essence would look like.

Again, what I chose surprised me, but seeing all 249 images again, I knew it was this: A close-up photo of five African children, early elementary ages, their faces full of promise, their posture an eager waiting, perhaps for a school door to open. Putting this to words, for me the outward and visible sign of our essence is our community’s caring not just for itself here at home, but equally for the emergent communities of the world rising from poverty, and those that need help doing so.

Around the circle of Vestry, other answers came, one after another. One said that for her the sign is our heading out into deeper waters away from the safety of the shore. Another, moving forward on the road to do God’s work and ours, confidently, competently, cheerfully. The verbs “share” and “support” were frequent, the sign of our essence being the sharing of our gifts and the bounties of creation to support others to accomplish their goals. And for another, the sign is our offering a place and a community to explore transcendence.

I said that this was a distinctly different sort of Day Away. We didn’t learn a body of information. We didn’t build a plan. We didn’t analyze a problem. We purposely catered to both hemispheres of our brains, took into account the varied ways of knowing we use. We enjoyed a day together that also gave us time and space apart as individuals. I guess you could say we spent the day being bathed in images, playing with parables: puzzling metaphors that tease the mind to think and imagine and recognize and believe.

And throughout this day a drama was unfolding in the tall grasses just off the edge of the pond, right near where several small groups were meeting. A young fawn (turns out just a week old) was nestled in those grasses. Every so often, when human voices rose, so did the fawn, looking around, toddling onto its legs but staying tight to its spot. A doe had been seen climbing Sheep Hill earlier that morning, and we dared hope—no, we truly needed it to be—that she had gone foraging and would be back.

The hours passed. Two hours, three, four, five. The fawn kept rustling, rising, looking about, no doe. Then, at the last, someone called out, “She’s back!” And as we gathered in the doorway to watch, there was the doe, standing over her fawn who was nursing. We don’t get to see that every day.

On the other hand, perhaps we could. Perhaps we would see more evidence of grace, more birthing of new life, more drama of redemption, if we sought more communion between our human hemispheres of explanation and awareness, more communion between daily life and the kingdom of God.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Imagine and Believe

Scripture for Trinity Sunday includes Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17; John 3:1-17

I need visuals to help us consider the Nicodemus story. If you can’t see what these words say, let me help you with that: One says Believe, the other Imagine. They’ve sat in our library for a long time, awaiting their debut. We need them today, as we unpack the story of a secret disciple who makes an interesting companion on Trinity Sunday.

Nicodemus is introduced as a Pharisee. Pharisees have gotten bad press in ages past. Reappraised more recently, they’re understood now as having been progressive agents of change in the first century, helping shape what would become modern Judaism.

It could be that Episcopalians and Pharisees have more in common than we’d guessed. By whatever path he got there, Nicodemus displayed both a privileged life and a sense of social responsibility that made of him a leader. But he seems secretive in his approach to Jesus, coming to him under the cover of night. And if there’s one more trait that might make him one of us, he has a kind of puffy use of the pronoun “we”: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God…” I can hear our Lord’s disciples muttering, “Oh? Who’s that “we”? For whom is Nicodemus making this claim? Is he leading a temple coup among the Pharisees, or is he a lone ranger covering his tracks and making himself sound grander than he is?”

One might even wonder whether Nicodemus, this man of substance who wears the mantle of authority and carries social approval, might be hoping to co-opt Jesus, an itinerant street preacher from impoverished Galilee, known to hang out with all the wrong sorts, a fellow “we” think has great potential if he would just go to the right seminary and polish his approach, get a little less other-worldly and help us keep the peace here on earth…

Notice how flattering Nicodemus’s words can be taken, and how Jesus does not take them: he cuts to the chase and confronts with his own spiritual purposes whatever agenda Nicodemus has: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Here is where Nicodemus, to believe, must imagine. Imagine what Jesus might mean by being born from above. This stumps Nicodemus. Astonishes him. I think it even offends him at some level of his propriety.

And yet… Astonishment is one reason Nicodemus has sought out Jesus. “No one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” When Nicodemus is face to face with Jesus’s actions—his healings, exorcisms, feedings—the resulting astonishment does not block the Pharisee’s believing: in fact, it quickens his faith. But when he encounters Jesus himself, hears Jesus’s words, experiences Jesus’s attitude, finds himself in face to face relationship with Jesus, the resulting astonishment pushes the edge of the envelope. And suddenly, he is arguing with Jesus.

Nicodemus’s mind appears to be hemmed-in by his literal thinking, his insistence that one word must mean one thing. You could say that he lacks imagination. To believe, he must be freed to imagine. To be freed, he must welcome and experience the compassionate faithfulness of God that is being made intimately available to him in Jesus Christ, as it is to each of us.

I wonder if something very basic is going on in Nicodemus’s resistance. When Jesus chose not to respond to Nicodemus’s flattery, he answered the Pharisee with words that I imagine pushed him right out of his comfort zone. Words that we recognize as being about baptism—“You must be born from above”, and if that’s not clear enough, “born of water and Spirit.” To speak of baptism at that point in time was to evoke the image of John the Baptizer, that ragged firebrand who violated the propriety that would have mattered to this Pharisee. John the Baptizer attracted all sorts and conditions of people, by the hundreds and perhaps thousands, including the great unwashed lower classes. And what John preached was radical: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Tax collectors were told to stop collecting more than was due, and soldiers were ordered to stop extorting bribes and issuing threats. Soldiers of the occupying Roman imperial army were being ordered around by the likes of this wild man, John. What is the world coming to?

And Jesus is implying that Nicodemus must wade into the muddy water of the Jordan River, rubbing shoulders with all that teeming humanity, to what end? To lose face, to be branded as a wild-eyed revolutionary, to be targeted by Rome?

Doesn’t Jesus know that if he wants to establish a movement, he must make it easy for people, not harder than it already will be? What is he imagining, Nicodemus wonders.

I imagine that Nicodemus can’t yet shake free from his pride, his self-sufficiency, and his fear.

Nicodemus and Jesus are on two different wavelengths. The one is focused on the earthy, the other on the heavenly, the spiritual. Nicodemus can say to Jesus, “We know that you have come from God…” Jesus can say, “We speak of what we know…yet you do not receive our testimony.”

As true as it is to say that to believe, Nicodemus must imagine, it is also true that in order to imagine (in order to image what is challenging and puzzling) this human power needs to be yoked to belief, be inspired by believing, be guided by faith.

Nicodemus’s story makes an intriguing partner with Trinity Sunday. Today, the Church celebrates a doctrine, the one time in the rotation of fifty-two Sundays that we do this. Timing is everything, and it’s right on the heels of Pentecost, God’s giving of the Spirit to ignite the Church to respond to its calling to help God renew the face of the earth. It’s as if we watch God add the dynamic of the Holy Spirit to an equation that already has in it God the Creator and Jesus Christ the beloved, and the Church recognizes, “Yes! That’s it! Those are the three key ways we have come to know God, the one God in three aspects, three self-revealings, three ways to relate to the one God who chooses to relate to us with a singular love that casts out fear and challenges pride.”

Like Nicodemus, to believe we must imagine, and to imagine we need to hitch our wagon to the star of faith. Unlike Nicodemus, we do this spiritual work not secretly but transparently in fellowship with one another and in communion with God, both celebrating this doctrine of the Holy Trinity and puzzling over its meaning. This includes astonishment that Jesus, the Son of Man, must be lifted high upon the cross, amazement that eternal life is thrown open so graciously, and awe that the world—with all its teeming humanity and all its shimmering web of life—is to be made whole in him.

How it will happen, this renewal of the face of the earth and all its glorious mantle of life, will depend in no small part on our using our God-given gracious powers to believe and to imagine.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Spiritual Redemption from Spiritual Bondage

Scripture for the Day of Pentecost includes Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

We need one more thing happening here today. I’m kidding. Nor am I complaining. Pentecost should be a day of deep movement, both of God’s Spirit and of ours, hence also a day of much activity as bodies and minds join forces to turn the Easter momentum into powerful traction as Good News takes hold. And I especially won’t complain about a well-packed schedule today because my colleague Rabbi Rachel Barenblat was up until 4:00 this morning leading her congregation in prayer and Torah study in celebration of Shavu’ot.

That’s the ancient Jewish festival that gained the nickname Pentecost, meaning 50 days, in the Jewish context 50 days after the Passover. Its Hebrew name, Shavu’ot, means Festival of Weeks (seven weeks times seven days, seven being a number with mystical cachet), and it ranks second among the three annual Jewish festivals (Passover being the first, Sukkot the third). For Christians, Pentecost is among our three major festivals, too. And this year, Pentecost falls on the same day for both religions.

For Jews, Shavu’ot recalls the first harvesting of wheat, evidence of how much can happen in just those 50 days from the seedtime of Passover to the presentation of the first fruits in the temple at Jerusalem.

But where the rubber hits the road for both Christians and Jews is that this day is all about God’s giving: for Jews, God’s giving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Passover had freed the Hebrew people from bondage physically; Pentecost marks God’s giving Israel its signature code of law and its foundational holy scripture, the Torah, redeeming Israel spiritually from idolatry and immorality.

For Christians, Pentecost celebrates God’s giving the divine Spirit to all races and nations. We do get clubby about that, sometimes speaking as if the Holy Ghost descended only upon card-carrying Christian apostles—overlooking the fact that as of this day there were none of those yet. This was the day that whistled them into being, breathed into them the will and the courage and the faith to see the vision, dream the dream, prophesy the truth of God’s global embrace in Jesus Christ, not by might nor by human power, but by God’s Spirit.

This is where Jews and Christians celebrate the same divine action today: spiritual redemption from spiritual bondage. St. Paul gives a name to that redemption: he calls it adoption, a powerful metaphor of intimacy with God, who chooses to draw us into an embrace that releases us from our addictions to greed, to violence, to narcissism, to prejudice, to isolation, to idolatry (worshiping as if God what is decidedly not God). By adoption, God has restored to us our identity as children of God, and our awareness of who and whose we are empowers us to get with the program of love, reconciling love, redeeming love.

Hence the salient details of Pentecost. The rush of a mighty wind, shaking us free from past compulsions and habits that stand in the way of the Spirit. Tongues of fire burning away the crud of our worst mistakes, lighting and showing what our best choices will be. And tongues in the other sense, freedom and conviction to express our gratitude, our faith and hope and love, telling, testifying—across old boundaries of language and ethnic division-- showing where and how we sense God at work in the world. And joy, such exuberance that the self-appointed guardians of good taste dismissed all this Pentecostal revelry as just that, drunkenness.

And one last Pentecostal detail: They were all together in one place. It’s estimated somewhere that they were about 120 in number. We could fit that number handily here, filling some of these empty spots. They had been called in out of the cold rain of their fears and their grieving at the death of their master; we too are called in here to reaffirm who and whose we are, members of one Body, fed from one loaf, bound by one love, harnessed to one mission.

A mighty rush, a shaking free, many tongues, transcendent joy, unity in mission—these are all traits of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, its triennial legislative assembly, to meet this summer in Salt Lake City. Representing our sister Diocese of Massachusetts, our sister Sarah Neumann, a sophomore at Williams, will be seated in the 900-member House of Deputies, whose work is to debate and perfect literally hundreds of pieces of legislation shaping our Church internationally and locally. I’d put money on the likelihood that she will be the youngest Deputy there, and perhaps ever in the long history of the House of Deputies. On this her last Sunday in town before summer break, we will bless her on her way and look forward to her helping us unpack General Convention in the fall.

Our Easter Series presents its third and final speaker today on the subject of Climate Change and Creation Care. Ethan Zuckerman will address the same three questions we’ve put to all our speakers: How are you thinking about these realities? How are you praying about them? What are you doing about them?

Because we know these are the same basic questions we need to ask of ourselves, next Sunday we’ll offer an opportunity for series participants to stay on right after the 10:00 service, here in the church, to reflect on what you’ve heard in the series. This will be a chance to identify ideas and insights that we’ve taken home with us, from Bill Moomaw’s visit, from Rabbi Rachel Barenblat’s and Chaplain Rick Spalding’s presentation, and from Ethan’s today. I promise that this reflection session will not prevent you from getting in some coffee hour time.

Ethan Zuckerman is well placed to speak to us today about climate change from a global perspective. He is Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and a principal research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, where he heads research on Media Cloud, a system for quantitative analysis of agenda setting in digital media, and Promise Tracker, a platform that allows citizens to monitor powerful institutions using mobile and web technologies. He is the author of "Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection", published by W.W. Norton. Ethan co-founded international blogging community Global Voices, which showcases news and opinions from citizen media in over 150 nations and thirty languages. I think that makes Ethan Pentecostal!

And today Bishop Fisher begins his long walk through the Berkshires. He’s doubtless striding along Route 2 on his way here for lunch at 12:30. At 1:30 he and his companions will be driven south to the Store at Five Corners, where his walk resumes at 1:45. By 5:30, he’s expected at St. Luke’s for evening prayer.

You and I are invited to join him, one way or another. Come for lunch, when we’ll bless him on his way. We’re grateful to the several Vestry members who are overseeing the lunch in our upper room. And/or… meet him at the Store at Five Corners and walk with him a while. Just please don’t leave your car parked at the store—the lot isn’t roomy enough—if you’d like a ride to the store, that we can provide. And, as long as it’s within the six miles south of Five Corners, we’ll provide roadside pickup when you’ve reached your limit. In the printed announcements today, you’ll find several ideal spots for pickup. And, whether you walk there or drive there, join the Bishop for evening prayer in Lanesboro.

Why is our Bishop walking? That’s answered in the recent issue of our diocesan magazine, “Abundant Times”:

"In ancient days bishops walked their territories – staff in hand – as a visible sign of the universal Church embodied in its leader. The Bishop continues to be that witness of presence and the bridge between local congregations and the larger Church. Although Bishop Fisher has visited each of the 60 congregations at least once in the past two years, he is setting out on foot to:
o LISTEN to the experiences and hopes of the people he meets
o TALK about the Gospel informally
o PRAY with people where they are – beyond church walls
o BLESS all who serve the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the homeless and all who seek justice."

On Memorial Day weekend, our thoughts turn to the long walk towards justice in this nation, as we recall how this federal holiday originally (when it was called Decoration Day) remembered all who gave their lives in the Civil War, both Union and Confederate forces. That war ultimately accomplished the abolition of slavery, and a reunited nation found it just to solemnly recognize the ultimate price paid by both sides.

In the 20th century, the concept of Memorial Day broadened to include all the men and women who gave their lives to safeguard freedom and reprove injustice, in whatever wars of that war-weary century (and future centuries) in which they served.

Memorial Day has become a sort of gateway on the path to summer, a time to visit and tend the graves of loved ones, whether they served in the armed forces or not. It’s in keeping with a democracy that we include everyone. It’s in keeping with Pentecost that boundaries be porous and that our embrace in the name of God be ever widening, to include all, absolutely all.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Drawn to His Feet

Scripture for the 7th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 1:15-17, 21-26; I John 5:9-13; John 17:6-19

“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” So says the Nicene Creed, capturing a moment that would have gone viral if YouTube had been available in the first century. Instead, it was by the social media of the New Testament that the Ascension became the culminating feature, truly the high point, in the Gospel story of Jesus Christ.

In the middle ages, paintings—another form of social media—depicted the Ascension, sometimes giving the impression that Jesus was levitating. These paintings have in common a hill top, a band of disciples huddled around an empty central spot, craning their necks to see rising above that central spot their Lord Jesus, not in an action hero pose of ascent, but, well, levitating, rising, as if in no rush, as if intending to be seen, persuasively seen, one hand holding a scepter, the other raised in blessing. You can see a good example of this scene in the next to last window in the Gospel series above our altar. And, unavoidably, perhaps strategically, in some of these paintings one’s eye is drawn… to his feet. There they are, dangling in mid-air.

This would be a good moment to remind you that next Sunday our Bishop begins his walk through Berkshire County, starting in North Adams for eucharist at All Saints, coming here for lunch at 12:30, leaving by 1:30 heading south, his goal for that day being St. Luke’s, Lanesboro, for evening prayer at 5:30.

In his ascension, Jesus is glorified, exalted far above all earthly power and authority, showing that his rule transcends all other dominion, his love embraces all. There’s a Greek name for this exaltation. Apotheosis, making God-like what was previously hidden.

The story of Cinderella has an apotheosis, the servant girl who sweeps the hearth sweeps up the heart of a prince and, through gradual revelation and the overcoming of obstacles, she is freed to rise and claim a new life, a throne, a kingdom.

The story of a real person, George Washington, comes complete with apotheosis. What a rise to glory, from feisty teenager trying out his tree-felling skills in his neighbor’s orchard, to accomplished military officer, to first President of the United States (remember that many were so taken by him that they wanted to ditch democracy and make him king). At least one artist of the time, attempting to capture the moment of Washington’s death, showed him rising from his deathbed to ascend into heaven. Talk about ranking high in the popularity polls!

Apotheosis: making like God what was once hidden. Exalting the humble. Revealing the true and ultimate worth, the highest degree of development. The last shall be first, the least the greatest.

Our Bishop is demonstrating some of these themes in his plein air pilgrimage. He is allowing hidden worth and importance to be revealed along highways and town roads we’ve driven countless times without looking up, without looking-in to see who is there, without getting out of the car to set our feet on the earth, without hallowing the ground by actually seeing what’s there and how it might delight God by its beauty or disturb God by its condition, might in some as yet undetected way matter more to God than it does to us, might therefore be inviting us to recognize opportunity to learn, to serve, to love.

I believe that our Bishop, in these three long walks the full lengths of our three geographic valleys, is walking for all of us, nudging us all to wonder and imagine, recognize and consider, how the work of the church and the work of the world are related, how what lies hidden might be holy, how ultimate worth might be revealed, and the highest degree of development encouraged. How what we think of last when we think of the mission of the Church might deserve to be put first, and how what we tend to put first stacks up against the wider world, with its needs and opportunities, its realities. All of this is the work of apotheosis.

Exaltation is the English word that best translates the ancient Greek word. Our collect of the day says that the King of glory, God, has exalted his son Jesus to his kingdom in heaven. Just when we might be wondering, Is this like Dad (or Mom) passing on the family business to his (or her) next generation, or handing-on the deed to the family ranch?, just then we hear the collect shift the focus to us. Send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.

We are going to be promoted to headquarters. That is the Holy Spirit’s job: readying us for management. Management of our own body-mind-spirit complex, management of our multiple relationships, management of our life in community, management of this fragile earth, our island home. Or is it that we have already been promoted? I believe that’s more in line with the message of St. John in his letter today: “This is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life…”

The final verse in a hymn we sang here on Ascension Day (this past Thursday) catches this puzzling theme of our own exaltation: “Thou hast raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand: There we sit in heavenly places, there with thee in glory stand. Jesus reigns, adored by angels; Man with God is on the throne; mighty Lord, in thine ascension, we by faith behold our own.”

Jesus embraces all, absolutely all. All who embrace him-- by baptism, by faith, by practicing his love—whoever has the Son-- has life. And life, says St. John in his Gospel just two or three verses before today’s portion, is for glorifying God on earth by finishing the work we have been given to do. One might say finishing the work of reconciliation and redemption, and on a good day seeing that we can do this through the finishing of our own work.

Not working in ways that silence the Spirit, or distract us from the Spirit, or result in our rejecting the Spirit: That would be the opposite of exaltation. No, in today’s Gospel Jesus makes it clear that we are not to be dominated by demands and obligation and duty, but we are to have his joy made complete in ourselves. We are to stop, from time to time, and look up—to clear our senses, gain fresh perspective, allow room and space in our work for joy and laughter, wonder and imagination, openness and inspiration. For these will rank high among the spiritual gifts that equip us to reach our fullest development and train us to trust God’s reach. For by that unerring grasp we shall be exalted, as his ascension becomes our own.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Radical Equality, Radical Reverence

Scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter includes Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Read the New Testament and it won’t take you long to notice how often the Hebrew Bible is quoted in the Christian writings of the early Church. The Jesus Movement happened within first-century Judaism. What by mid-century came to be called Christian was first Jewish, for the pioneer and perfecter of our faith is a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth.

And the Book of the Prophet Isaiah is, along with the Book of Psalms, a frequent source of these quotations. A quick scan reveals 22 locations where Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul, the top rock band of the New Testament, sing to a new tune the old yet ever-new lyrics of Isaiah and actually credit him as their source. Who knows how many, many, more times Isaiah’s thought is paraphrased, working its way into the Good News organically because these troubadors of Christ had heard the prophet since their childhood?

And it’s not as if these liftings are minor footnotes to the Christian story. Here are five examples.

“ Jesus left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” (Matthew 4:13-16)

“(And he) cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (Matthew 8:16-17)

“Many crowds followed Jesus… and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.” (Matthew 12:15b-20)

“As it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:4-6)

“When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release of the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all… were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” (Luke 4:16-21)

These are not minor brush strokes: These are solid background and lustrous foreground on the canvas of the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. And what do our New Testament authors’ use of Isaiah illuminate? They show who the Christ is, what he comes for, and what our mission is within the new life he opens to us.

This is big stuff. And there’s no more exciting example of this transformative messaging than today’s story of the Ethiopian royal treasurer. You notice how I introduce this man, who is without a name. I mean, who ever would introduce such an important person by calling attention to a missing body part? The long shelf life of that disadvantage he suffered, the institutionalized violence he would bear for a lifetime, makes sense only if this is understood to be a story of what God wants us to do about human discrimination, about the injustice of keeping marginalized people under control.

What is he reading? He has borrowed from the royal library—or perhaps is well-off enough that he can afford his own—a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

“About whom does the prophet speak?” he asks the apostle Philip, who has popped up on this wilderness road, despatched by the Holy Spirit, and has accepted the Ethiopian’s invitation to step up into his chariot and help him understand what the scripture means. “Does the prophet say this about himself, or about someone else?”

Here is where I once heard brilliant teaching by Lutheran preacher and scholar Barbara Lundblad. She surprised an audience of several hundred of us at the Chautauqua Institute, one steamy summer day. We were used to the idea that Isaiah gets quoted a lot in the New Testament in order to strengthen the Christian claim that Jesus Christ fulfills the Jewish law and prophets. Barbara went deeper.

“Dry trees,” she told us. That’s what they called men who had been made eunuchs in order to serve in the royal harem. Barbara invited us to imagine the snickering that went with that put-down. In a culture that equated having many children with having God’s favor, a culture that saw its children ensuring the future of family, tribe, and nation, a dry tree was counted as less than a whole person, no present standing in the eyes of God or the nation, no future claim to live on in his children. The Ethiopian stands in a long time line of people, many people, especially resident aliens, being counted not as whole persons, but as three-fifths of a person, and treated accordingly.

Barbara Lundblad had pretty much climbed up into that chariot by now, and said, “Boys, let me show you something. You’re trying to understand Chapter 53 of Isaiah. If you scroll down to chapter 56, listen to what you find there: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people;’ and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples…” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

The Ethiopian’s heart resonates perfectly with Isaiah’s portrait of a man suffering humiliation and the denial of justice. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet says this, about himself or about… someone else?”

The early Church’s evangelists wanted their hearers to say, “It is about Jesus that Isaiah writes!” Barbara Lundblad sensed that the eunuch was daring to wonder, “Could this be true of me? Can the humiliating power of discrimination be overcome in me?”

Philip’s answer must have persuaded this man of the radical equality of all people in the eyes of God, whose only requirement of us is that we embrace the covenant love that embraces us, and extend that great chain of giving respect and care, freely, generously, and unearned, to all people and to all creatures. The Ethiopian embraces this new vision, this new life: When he sees a pool of water, he cries out, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

To that, the answer is only that he stop his chariot, step off the treadmill of his old thinking, recognize in himself and in others the image of God, let God flush away the toxins swallowed over years of ill treatment, prejudice, exclusion, and contempt.

Just don’t miss this, added Barbara: This was a wilderness road, a desert road. One does not expect to find pools of water along a road like this. It is purely by God’s grace that this man goes down into water he could never have expected, and rises new.

Such grace had prompted Philip to be on that road, to be open to whomever he found there, to renounce the safe distance people keep from each other. Such grace had stirred the Ethiopian to hunger and thirst for right understanding of the way of God, and such grace had humbled him to welcome help towards that understanding.

Such grace keeps happening because of the love of God for the whole creation. It keeps happening because Jesus Christ walks our wilderness roads with us. Such grace keeps happening because faith and hope and love are inherently and relentlessly stronger than fear.

Such grace reveals the radical equality of all people, and the power of radical reverence for all life. How we build with these givens, how they free us and bind us must be worked out on city streets, in the chambers of government, in our response to global crises, in sharp debate, in the rainbow of the arts and in the stewardship of science, in the ethics of private wealth and commonwealth, in the power of peacemaking and in the peaceable use of power.

Because given to us also are the responsibility and the opportunity and the desperate need to build the all-embracing community of justice seen and served by Isaiah and the prophets, by Jesus and the apostles, and the countless circle of people over many centuries who have let themselves be embraced by the love of God.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Shepherding

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Easter includes Ezekiel 34:1-10; I John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

I’ll bet you won’t be surprised to hear that this Sunday is nicknamed Good Shepherd Sunday. While there are plenty more scriptural references to sheep and shepherds than those we’ve heard today, we don’t need more to highlight the importance of shepherding as a real winner—at least in the ancient world-- in conveying the nature of care. Real, genuine, authentic care.

That care is fearless, keeps the wolf at bay, seeks out the straying and lost, values the individual. The good shepherd risks life and limb to deliver this care. It’s no wonder that this metaphor holds strong in both the Hebrew Bible and in Christian scriptures. It trains us to dare believe that it describes accurately and indelibly the nature and passionate purpose of God.

Equally clear, especially in the hands of old Ezekiel, is how the metaphor calls us to practice this very same care. It pleases us, to recognize God in the shepherd’s caring. It pleases God, to recognize the shepherd’s caring in and through us.

And what delights me about this metaphor is its cross-species reach. This will be a good moment in our Easter focus on climate change and creation care to remind ourselves that the vows of Christian baptism embrace not only care for the human species, but for the whole of the created order.

The baptismal covenant expects of us agreement to enter and extend God’s ever-fresh reconciling, restoring, renewing of all creation, the whole shimmering web of life. We do this work by showing in our lives what we profess by our faith. We heard St. John nail it in his letter: “Let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Listen to these expressions of our baptismal profession:

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.”

We pray for those about to be baptized: “Send them into the world in witness to your love.”

Immediately upon a person’s being baptized, we pray, “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And wherever the contemporary creed from Iona is said, Christians are called to the front lines of creation care: “…though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt, in God we trust; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness…”

So let’s get back to those sheep. I have lived a sheltered life, when it comes to sheep. I know little first-hand about them. I do know that they have a reputation for not being the brightest bulbs on the Ark. I know that in the quest for using the Internet to enhance communication between human beings and other sentient beings, a touchscreen network is being designed for intelligent animal species to communicate directly with humans and each other. Pioneers on this frontier used a TED talk to introduce this idea that the Internet can be used to communicate with the many remarkable beings with which (with whom?) we share the planet. (Imagine getting an e-mail from your cat.) Cockatoos, dolphins, octopuses, great apes, parrots, elephants have all been identified as likely communicators. But I haven’t heard sheep mentioned in this regard.

I know that on one memorable Easter Sunday we invited a lovely family of shepherds from Pownal to bring their lambs to church, where, as you’d expect, they fascinated everyone. From that day I have declined every opportunity to eat lamb. If I ever do relax that discipline, there’s no one I’d rather buy lamb from than the Barsottis of Longview Farm. They run their business as a CSA, the wider community supporting a farm, enjoying its accomplishments, sharing its risks. They insist on feeding grass to their sheep, not grains. When one of their ewes died giving birth, the Barsottis raised the twin lambs, bottle-feeding, diapering, and giving them free range of the first floor of their house, until they were strong enough to join the flock. (And we keep searching for effective models of Christian formation? Here’s the prototype.)

From here out, I only think I know that while the default mode for goats is to scatter when they graze, the instinct of sheep is to cluster, more often than not. They just need occasional help doing that centering (and who among us does not?), hence the roles of shepherds and of sheep dogs—and if we had more of a cross-species version of Jesus’s sheep and shepherds parables, who knows what images of God (and of our own mission) those dogs might give us?

I think I know that shepherds in the Middle East liked to give names to their sheep. Perhaps that endearing practice works better with small flocks than with large industrial sheep farms. If Danielle and Adam Busby in Houston were challenged to find five excellent names for their recently born quintuplets—Olivia, Ava, Hazel, Parker, Riley, five girls, two of them identical twins—well, you get my point.

And yet is there anything more personal than one’s own name? The quintessential story about this truth is St. John’s Easter Day narrative. First at the tomb that morning, while it was still dark, courageous Mary Magdalene comes to anoint Jesus’s body, and finds the great stone rolled away from the grave. She runs back to where the not-yet-apostolic band of men are huddled in fear and blurts out what she has seen.

Two of them run to see for themselves, and apparently Mary runs that route one more time, for she is there in the story, at the grave, after the men leave. She is weeping, and through her tears she sees two figures in white, sitting on the ledge where Jesus’s body had briefly lain. They ask her why she is crying. Through her sobbing, she expresses her bewilderment: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Suddenly, something draws her to turn around. He is present to her. She doesn’t recognize him, as he asks her the question of the angels: “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” He appears to be calling her to her senses—not away from her emotions, but into them and through them, asking her, inviting her, expecting her to look deeply into the reality of the present. To see him as he is, to recognize the encounter they’re having for what it is, to occupy the precious present.

It takes time. Through the scrim of her tears, she still cannot see clearly who this is. And perhaps there is so much changed about him, given the (literally) hell of a week he has just had. Then he utters this one word that wipes the fog from the glass: “Mary!” Hear the exclamation mark. Instinctively, naturally, like a seedling turning toward the light of the sun, she responds, “Rabbouni (Teacher)!” Again, hear the light punctuate the darkness. And recognize the pattern: the risen Christ encounters the individual person in his or her bewilderment, and in that meeting of Spirit conveys the knowing (You will never have to explain to me, he says, the impact of the kind of week you’re having—I know!) and does this conveying simply calling you by name. It’s all you need to hear.

Faith is not so much about seeing as it is about hearing, says Mary’s story. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” but heard in the Word made flesh, heard best by name, and by a known voice. No accident, that there is a common Latin root for two verbs, to hear and to obey.

We are blessed today to hear two known voices. One belongs to Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel, accomplished poet, and widely read blogger under the name The Velveteen Rabbi. She wears well. And anyone with such respect for the importance of worn spots in life is no stranger to the Easter story. In fact, Rabbi Rachel and her husband Ethan have sat in these pews on more than one Easter, and I will never forget the experience of reading her posted reflections on worshiping with us, a beautiful piece of appreciative inquiry. I hope to always remember also the richly engaging Passover Seder when Diana and I were guests at Rachel’s and Ethan’s table.

A second known and treasured voice belongs to The Rev. Dr. Richard Spalding, Chaplain to all at Williams College. I’ve known Rick for just a bit more than the fifteen years he has served at Williams. Diana served on the search committee that brought him to Williamstown, and I’ll confess I took an early opportunity to meet Rick on his then home turf in Cambridge. It took so little time to discover in him a trusted, open, and steady colleague and friend.

These two speakers have much in common. They are highly and deeply respected. They are adept at climbing over walls that could separate, and, like good shepherds, they know how to center communities of people. They do not come to us today as experts on the subjects of climate change and creation care. They are not here to present information that we don’t already have, but to name and probe the lived experience for ordinary people who are discovering themselves called, more and more, to be good shepherds in daily life.

Diane Ackerman's book "The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us" was helpful in preparing this sermon.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Holy Momentum

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday of Easter includes Acts 4:32-35; I John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

This Sunday has often been called Low Sunday. After a full church on Easter Day, the Second Sunday of Easter can look like the day after the Second Coming. Like in the movie “Left Behind,” we who are left in church on this Sunday wonder what has become of all those good people we welcomed last weekend? And we have a hunch they haven’t all been raptured.

Our Bishop, Doug Fisher, has called us out of that head-scratching mode by calling all the parishes of Western MA to make this Momentum Sunday. Retire the sad old nickname Low Sunday. Momentum Sunday it is: forward in the strength and grace of the resurrection.

How we are doing that today is by launching an Easter Series of education and encouragement under the heading, “Climate Change and Creation Care”. Whatever you make of the science and politics of climate change, creation care is at the heart of what you and I sign up for whenever we renew our vows of holy baptism. The baptismal agreement is to enter and extend/promote/serve God’s new covenant of reconciliation, restoring, renewing all creation, the whole shimmering web of life. And, as the collect of the day puts it, we do this work by showing forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

Listen to these words of our baptismal profession:

“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? I renounce them.”

We pray for those about to be baptized: “Send them into the world in witness to your love.” Not send them into the church… or send them back to bed to hide under the covers… but into the world.

Immediately upon a person’s being baptized, we pray, “Sustain her, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give her an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

And wherever the contemporary creed from Iona is said, Christians are called to the front lines of creation care: “…though we are sometimes fearful and full of doubt, in God we trust; and, in the name of Jesus Christ, we commit ourselves, in the service of others, to seek justice and live in peace, to care for the earth and to share the commonwealth of God’s goodness…”

We are very fortunate to have Bill Moomaw with us this morning, to help us launch this series. Its purpose: to sustain us as we inquire and discern, to encourage us to will and persevere.

The Moomaw Family coat of arms must have the verb Persevere on it. Bill’s life’s-work has shown a model and set the pace for what he asked of the senior class at Williams in 2013, when he was honored with a Bicentennial Medal from his alma mater. “Create a social and economic momentum to change the destructive path the world is on,” he urged. “Be mindful of the implications of how and what we all do affects the planet. Do what you can personally… lead by example.”

Six years earlier, Bill’s work on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, under the aegis of the United Nations, placed him in a circle of people who would be startled to learn that they were sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U. S. Vice President Al Gore.

Our Bishop’s call to make this Momentum Sunday recognizes and celebrates how Jesus led by example, and gets us inquiring and discerning what sort of momentum, what kind of movement, our Lord set in motion.

Our readings today are peppered with pointers and clues. First, as we have seen in our Collect, it is a movement into reconciliation. Our Prayer Book Catechism teaches that the mission of the Church is to restore all people (and we have seen already the scope of our baptism including the restoring of all creation) to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Our first reading from the Book of Acts shows the social and spiritual movement of Jesus to be one of great power and grace rooted in the knowledge that it is not we who own the earth, but God. And it is not the building of our own wealth that demands our primary allegiance, but strengthening that commonwealth the Iona Creed names, a fellowship that cares for its members (especially its most vulnerable) while caring equally for neighbors outside that fellowship, indeed, says John, the whole world and therefore all that is in it (especially its most vulnerable).

Our second reading from one of the letters of John shows the movement Jesus has created to be one of radical respect and high regard for matter, for the outward and visible, for what is inquired into and discerned by the senses that recognize, the mind that weighs and comprehends, the heart that can feel reverence, repentance, responsibility and joy. Matter and spirit move together in this new creation launched by the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.

And our Gospel insists that this is not a movement either based on or furthered by fear. Jesus moves to open locked doors, to breathe new life into God’s people and God’s creation, and to make his wounds known to us so we will see and believe that he is already at work ahead of us, around us, through us. Transparency, freedom, inspiration, confidence are all traits and powers of his movement.

These are not the powers and traits of a victim mowed down by a movement stronger than he, or a passive soul caught in some unalterable downward spiral. Holy Week is not the story of someone struggling against death and finally giving into it. The emphasis in all four Gospels is upon Jesus’s death as a free act. Jesus was not killed. He died. He gave up his Spirit, purposefully. He knew himself to be Spirit expressing itself through body. He had learned how to let his Spirit control and guide the total reality of his person.

Those words aren’t mine, though I agree with them. They come from Holy Week meditations by Richard Holloway, former Bishop of Edinburgh and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Scotland. He finds fault with the view that Jesus was a victim, because that encourages us to believe various victim theories about our own nature, including how we think about our death.

What we learn from Christ, he says, is not that death happens to us, it is not a submission to something we can do nothing about. “That is not what we learn from Christ and those who have lived with something of his courage,” Holloway writes. “For them life becomes something that they live, not something that simply happens to them. Death itself becomes a free, personal act… It is the final act of a person who controls his life. According to our Lord’s example, death is something we can freely choose, indeed must choose, because it corresponds to the reality of personality as free spirit. Death has been defeated and robbed of its sting, and is something we can now make our own. This is what he did. His last word (from the cross) was a giving back to God of that life which had come from God. ‘Father, into thy hands I return my spirit.’ This was the way of Christ, the free man, probably the only really free person, the only really complete person. So his death, as well as being a great and awful tragedy, is yet a triumph of the spirit, because it is controlled at every point, not by the human actors in the drama (those roles we played in reading the Passion Gospel, two Sundays ago), not by the executioners, by Pilate, by Herod, by Annas and Caiaphas; nor even by the very action of his own body with its cells and molecules, but by his own spirit. By freely choosing death and going through it obediently to the end, he reversed the tragedy of all dying.”

I readily imagine an objection to this business of choosing death: Doesn’t it condone suicide? Not if you’ve been catching the frequency of the word “freedom” and “free”, words that do not describe the state of mind and heart and will in a person who kills himself not in an open embrace of dying, but in a tragic attempt at escaping life—rejecting, rather than returning, the gift of life.

But my oh my, doesn’t that open up doors down corridors of another sermon, where we should probably go some day, but not today. Today, we consider the movement Jesus opens through his death and his rising. And we consider the environmental movement towards caring for the earth. In neither case will it serve the world well to see Jesus as a passive victim, or ourselves as victims.

What will help is to grasp the freedom we are given, and, inspired and guided and sustained by the Spirit we are given, step up to the passion our world needs of us.

The passion of Christ—his life, his death, his resurrection—is all about choices freely taken, decisions freely made, the body guided by the Spirit. This is the stuff of the great fifty days of Easter culminating in the Day of Pentecost, a season also known as Spring, such a right time to consider Climate Change and Creation Care.

Richard Holloway's words are taken (and paraphrased just a bit) from his book "The Killing: Meditations on the Death of Christ," Morehouse Barlow, 1984.

O Come, All Ye Faithful

Scripture for Easter Day includes Isaiah 25:6-9; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Once a month, I go to each of the two nursing homes here in Williamstown, to celebrate communion with a hardy little circle of residents who have come to what the activities calendar calls Episcopal Mass. Seldom is there an Episcopalian to be found in either circle. Some come because they’re drawn by the promise of a mass, and they know how to respond when I lead off with “The Lord be with you.” Others seem drawn by the promise of a church service, whatever its flavor. The prevailing wisdom is that there are no denominations in the foxholes: We are one in the Spirit, and no one asks to see our union cards.

On my March visit to Sweet Brook, I expected to see the usual set-up of a table and a row or two of chairs at the near end of the dining room. Instead, I saw a staff meeting going on there, while at the far end there was a semi-circle of residents. I thought to myself, “Humph. Looks like they aren’t expecting me.” Then I spotted one familiar face and then another, convincing me that that was the Episcopal Mass, movable feast version.

Always, even when attendance is at absolute low tide, we sing a hymn to start and to end. I asked if someone wanted to pick the hymn. Foster, who never misses a service, Foster (who would turn 103 that next Sunday), Foster called out a hymn number. I could tell it wasn’t #93 (“What a Friend We Have in Jesus”), and it wasn’t #4 (“Amazing Grace”). No, it was #61, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

This being the 25th of March, I said back (with a touch of surprise), “A Christmas carol!” To which Foster replied, “No, it isn’t.” At that moment, my better angel put his finger to my lips and I said nothing. Why argue with a 103-year-old who wants to sing a Christmas carol in March?

But my self-conscious angel blushed, stealing a glance over my shoulder to see if that staff meeting was still underway. It was. “Sheesh, Elvin: you’re going to lead nine really elderly people in singing this a cappella?” As if reinforcing this worry about appearances, I noticed the activities director had quietly left the room.

“Why not?” I heard myself think. “Besides, if I don’t start this carol, Foster will—and if I lead, I can choose a range I can sing in.” So off we went, and in just seven seconds we were in Bethlehem, beholding the birth of the King of angels.

And I couldn’t help but smile. I noticed others in the circle were smiling, too. I’d lost track of that staff meeting, except to wonder if they too were smiling.

Suddenly, it came to me what day it was. March 25, nine months to the day from December 25. March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, when the archangel Gabriel (the fellow in blue in that window in our east aisle) appeared to Mary, telling her she would conceive and bear a son, and would name him Jesus. He would be great, and would be called Son of the Most High, bringing to earth a kingdom that would have no end.

And when Mary protested that this just wasn’t the right choice, she wasn’t yet married, hadn’t even known a man’s touch, Gabriel answered, “Nothing shall be impossible with God.”

The Prayer Book appoints a prayer to be offered on the Feast of the Annunciation: “Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection…”

And here we are. Some are present today because they have been brought here by his cross and passion. On Maundy Thursday, they allowed their feet to be washed as a lesson in servant ministry. Good Friday, they spent time considering the enormity of God’s all-embracing love. In the Easter Eve Vigil, they renewed the vows of their baptism.

Some may be present today for other reasons, like family unity, curiosity, or outright bribery.

But here we are, making our responses to the call, “O come, all ye…” Come, you who wonder what to make of the claim of his resurrection. Come, you who are confident in the assurance of his resurrection. Come, you who resist the possibility of his resurrection. And here we are, one way or another, because of the glory of his resurrection.

If “glory” feels like it’s more a first-century than 21st-century word, perhaps “joy” is what fits the pull of this day. The joy that was breaking out in that circle of smiling elders, the joy that lights up Christmas, is the power at work today, the power that is the pulse of the heart of God. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that, no matter how hard some may try, God’s love, God’s reconciling love, God’s all-comprehending love, God’s fully forgiving love, cannot be killed. For nothing shall be impossible with God.

Joy that was the prize and the goal that Jesus saw always before him, and for the sake of that joy endured the cross, its shame and its cruelty. Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, teaching us to lay claim to the central gift and power of God: Joy that is born of love, raised by love.

Monday, March 23, 2015

His Passion Is for Us

Scripture for the 5th Sunday in Lent includes Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

I want to dispel two rumors. One is that I have given up preaching for Lent. But I will tell you how much I have enjoyed doing what you do on Sundays, listening attentively to someone other than myself, someone who has already listened attentively to what the Spirit is saying to the Church. I have enjoyed lying fallow these past two Sundays. I have gratefully received the gift of first Ben’s, then Steve’s preaching. I could get used to this. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul put it, “Woe is me if I preach not the Gospel.” And I know what he means.

The second rumor I’m here to dispel is that I have asked the Vestry for a 65-million- dollar jet to fulfill my responsibilities as a pastor. It’s tempting, but I’m not sure Harriman Airport is ready for that; and to overshoot that runway in takeoff would indeed put me right at the doors of several parishioners, but not constructively.

Pastor Creflo Dollar—and isn’t truth stranger than fiction, for the man is well named—complains that his current jet has been in and out of the shop for repairs over the past thirty years. I can relate to that. If I had accumulated the dollars I’ve spent fixing the cars I’ve driven over the past three decades, it would be a tidy sum. Though there have been unexpected secondary gains: I would never have met the fascinating array of mechanics who have displayed their own brand of pastoral care (including the mother of two of them, whose coffee and biscotti can’t be beat), nor would I have ever finished reading “High Tide in Tucson” or any of the other waiting room books I’ve kept handy for such vigils.

Speaking of reading, I’ve had an experience in the week just past, assigning parts to sixteen parishioners who have volunteered to help read the Palm Sunday Gospel in Many Voices. That’s eight readers per service. The approach we’ve used has been to provide a sign-up sheet with the number of spaces that correspond to the number of parts to be filled. That has seemed wiser than listing the parts; who’s in a rush, after all, to fill the role of Judas Iscariot, and, for that matter, how many takers do we expect for the key part, Jesus? Wiser, it seems, to find out who’s up for the adventure in general, then get specific. Whether this approach is fairer isn’t so obvious. One might sign up, hoping for a plum part, only to be cast as a heavy. Such, I suppose, is show business. It is, for sure, how church business gets done via servant ministry, the first being last and the last first.

Having this task on my to-do list has given me the opportunity to reconsider who these people in the Passion Gospel are, and what they’re expressing. It is the Church’s task to hear what the Spirit is saying through this passionate story that fills the crucible of Palm Sunday and Holy Week, year after year, unaltered except for how it is read and who it is who reads it. The words, the actions, remain the same over nearly two thousand years of hearing.

And I hasten to add actions, not only words, because no sooner had I matched parts with readers, relishing the completion of that task, than it dawned on me that there was one more part to fill: at the 10:00 service, our custom calls for a nearly life-sized cross to be brought up the aisle to the altar. I had almost succumbed to a basic temptation: imagining the Passion of Christ without his cross, expressing the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus, at a discount, discounting the hard news of Good Friday, when the incomprehensible love of God comprehends all loss.

So we will have this story full, action as well as words. And the fullest part, at least in terms of air time, is the Evangelist, the Gospel writer St. Mark, who narrates the action, setting the stage for each of the readers in turn.

The first whose voice we will hear is Jesus. Instantly, we are drawn in, literally inward, to our Lord’s interior experience of all that is happening to him, through him, in the vortex of outward actions penning him in like a sheep in the shearing pen. First, we hear him pray. Moments later, he shakes Peter out of sleep. Temptation is at work all around. Peter, James, and John have escaped into sleep, avoidance, denial.

Our Lenten journey began with the signing of the cross on our foreheads, calling us to pay attention to reality and to give obedience to God. Jesus’s Lenten journey began in the desert, where he mastered those arts of attention and obedience.

But no sooner is the inner core of disciples discovered sleeping, than Judas actively betrays his master. Insidiously, his kiss signals which man it is to be seized in this dark garden. Could there be a greater perversion of justice, that a sign of love should abuse the One who embodies perfectly the love of God? Notice that history does not judge only that ragtag police force in the garden of Gethsemane for the violence they inflict wrongfully: History judges also the Church for falling asleep at the switch, neglecting the requirements of justice, allowing the perfidy of Judas. Judas, disappointed by the kind of Messiah Jesus is, tired of the servanthood message, itching to advance his own political zeal; Judas, the undoer of Jesus, comes undone by the same temptations his master resists.

A high priest is heard next, filling the role of Jesus’s Grand Inquisitor. Here is where every member of the clergy ought to tremble, from Fr. Elvin to Pastor Dollar to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Each a kept person, tempted not to rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds. The laity who profess and practice faith are no less accountable for how they represent God in the world. Nor are they less susceptible to the temptation not to disturb the status quo of whatever it is that keeps them, their career, their social set, their family, their country— whatever we defend, right or wrong, unthinking, uncritically.

A servant-girl will be heard. She identifies Peter as a disciple of Jesus. A more mature post-resurrection Peter would know how to welcome such a moment as this. But in the build-up to Good Friday, temptation is all about yielding to fear, and he does.

But the voice of the servant girl is thought to be the voice of social prejudice. Peter’s accent gives him away as a Galilean, and her dark role is to profile him based on appearances. How ancient is this temptation, to judge someone’s otherness, assume him blameworthy, diminish his humanity, expose him to ethnic cleansing.

And all of this is about to happen full-bore to Jesus, who now appears before Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea. But the title neither impresses nor intimidates Jesus, who refuses to answer Pilate’s questions.

After witnessing this encounter, we will stand for the final third of this story, which keeps escalating in intensity. Over and again, we hear voices punctuate the narrative, catapulting heavy boulders of harsh judgment against Jesus— and they’re our voices! It’s as if we’re rehearsing yielding to the temptation to project onto the innocent one all the spleen and blame that fuels scape-goating, all our swallowed rage at a lousy economy, failed leadership, the scourge of brutality, corruption in high places. Wholesale helplessness.

One more voice will be heard, the last word, a word of truth and sanity from a least likely fellow, a Roman centurion, the officer in charge of this public execution. In one sense, he assesses the loss the world has just experienced in this unjustifiable punishment. But to the ears of those hearing what the Spirit is saying, the centurion ‘s verdict is the seed from which the green blade rises: “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

And is, his people respond. Though that response will not appear in the script,the very action, the annual rendition of the Passion Gospel in Many Voices, recognizes that his story addresses our temptations, trains us to pay attention to our own reality, calls us to give our hearts’ obedience to the One whose passion is for us, for the world and its salvation.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Lift High the Cross

Scripture for the 2nd Sunday in Lent includes Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38

March 1st. We’re on the right side of winter. One week from today, Daylight Saving Time begins. Can summer be far behind? But let’s have spring first! The Spring Equinox is Friday, March 20th. And we’re due for snow, today, tomorrow, and the next day.

Against the constantly changing backdrop of seasons and forecasts, Christians affirm the constancy of God’s love for us in the Anointed One, Jesus Christ, a love experienced in our spirits’ engagement with the Holy Spirit. We read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Regardless of the weather, the month, or the day.

The sign of that utterly dependable continuity is the cross. Life in Christ begins with the imposing of that sign of new life, on the forehead, in the water and oil of Holy Baptism. On Ash Wednesday, ashes, the final form of last year’s palms from the Sunday of our Lord’s Passion, reduced by fire, trace the same baptismal sign in the same baptismal spot. When healing is sought, the sacrament of unction brings the same sign to bear upon that site, outward anointing conveying inward anointing by the Spirit of God.

And, one day, that sacramental sign may be made upon the forehead for the last time as the Christian, dying, affirms radical continuity, commending human spirit into the carrying and keeping of Jesus Christ. When death reduces a believer’s body to its basic carbon components, earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, the sign of the cross is traced again as a handful of earth is released on casket or urn, using even the humus of decay to declare the utter constancy of God’s love for humankind, one by one.

The Church’s consistent use of the cross—and I’ve mentioned only a few garden-variety examples—reminds and teaches and expresses what St. Paul names in his Letter to the Romans today: God’s promises rest on grace and are guaranteed to be far more generous and all-embracing than we can imagine. “It depends on faith,” says Paul without quite making clear what “it” is, so we’re free to consider that “it” might be our comprehending, our imagining: Unless our imagining is shaped by our faith, we won’t grasp that each of us is grasped by God in Christ through the Spirit. It’s all so amazing, Paul says, as he alludes to the Abraham and Sarah saga to demonstrate how God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

“It’s enough to let you hope against hope!” Paul exclaims; Like Abraham, he reminds us.

And in that spirit of extravagant grace, the Church keeps making the sign of the cross over us, even when we present flimsy evidence that we truly get what it means, that cruciform sign of hope and faith and love. A bishop makes it on the forehead of each person she confirms, however promising, however ignited, however committed. The sign of the cross appears at the top of each priest’s certificate of ordination, reminding him that this calling is not to proclaim himself, but Christ crucified and risen. And when a couple kneels to receive God’s blessing in holy matrimony, there is a hoping against hope that this union will continue generating and sustaining life, so help them God.

The Gospel moment we witness today has Jesus expressing to his disciples openly the role that the cross will play in his life, and in theirs. Peter scolds him for discouraging their devotion, rebukes him for daring to imagine such an outcome as the one Jesus confidently foretells. “It’s enough to make us go back to our fishing nets!” Peter says, more or less.

Last week, we heard about temptations Jesus faced. Here, his disciples are tempted to imagine not the radical continuity of Christ and what that will mean to them, but rather their brand of continuity, keeping alive their delight in him, their thrill at having important work to do, their Robin Hood and his Merry Men spirit that they’re not going to yield freely.

To this, Jesus is said by Mark to have scolded Peter. But does he call Peter Satan, or is Jesus clearly seeing this moment as one more of Satan’s wily returns to erode his mission? For certain, Jesus summons Peter (and the rest of us) to set the mind on divine things. And, within moments of that, he urges them to take up their cross and follow him.

If you’d like to know where the custom of making the sign of the cross comes from, here is the Gospel answer: It is a way to set your mind on divine things. It is also a way to receive what God offers. There are at least eight moments in the Holy Eucharist when tradition says, “Here is an important moment to set your mind on divine things. Here is a ripe moment to intentionally receive what God is offering.

The first is at the very start. As Maria sings in “The Sound of Music”, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…” It’s in the ABCs of liturgy that the opening salutation always gives us a moment to set the mind. Find your worship leaflet, page one, at the salutation, and notice how a Lutheran salutation we’re using this Lent reminds people of the custom of signing themselves with the cross. Yes, that’s Lutheran. No, the Roman Catholics do not have the property rights on this custom.

What’s the interior meaning of the custom? It’s a prayer without words, but if we were to add the words, they would be, “God be in my mind, God be in my heart, God be in my weakness, God be in my strength.”

And what’s the house rule for such matters as this? All may… none must… some should. That’s the Anglican rule regarding religious practice in general.

A second moment in liturgy comes earlier in our Lenten order than in the rest of the year: The absolution that follows our prayer of confession is an example of God offering you something that deserves conscious receiving. At any point while the celebrant is announcing persuasive good news that your bacon has been hauled out of the fire by our Savior Jesus Christ, making the sign of the cross is in order.

A third moment is just before the reading of the Gospel. The fact that the Gospel reader troops down the aisle is a give-away that something good is on offer. It’s customary to welcome the Gospel by making a threefold sign of the cross on forehead, lips, and heart. I’ll bet that barely needs explaining, but the lips part is a key: for the Word we welcome to influence our talk, it must first land in the heart.

A fourth moment comes at the close of the Creed. This is another example of setting the mind on divine things. Having recited such a mouthful as the Nicene Creed, describing the Church’s faith and hope more fully than many of us might agree with or claim we understand, it’s good to deal with that sense of “Whew!” by the nonverbal prayer of the cross that lets us cast our care, our faith, and our questions upon God.

Fifth, near the end of the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might…”) comes a verse that is meant to recall us to the city gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Custom invites making the sign of the cross on that word “Blessed.”

Sixth is a moment well into the prayer at the altar when bread and wine are consecrated to their sacramental purpose. That purpose is named, right after the Holy Spirit is invoked to come upon these gifts of bread and wine: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” In that moment, so reminiscent of baptismal mystery, we recognize that we have unity with God and one another as gift, and the gift is being replenished. This is another time to intentionally receive what is being offered.

Two more remain. One is obvious: After receiving the bread and the wine.

And the last is hard to miss: When the blessing is declared, it deserves to be caught, received, welcomed.

Why adopt an ancient custom, one that may feel unfamiliar? In the first half of this sermon, I mentioned seven instances of the sign of the cross made upon or over us, as it happens, by clergy: Important times of transition, rites of passage, times we couldn’t imagine the sign of the cross not being made.

In the second half of this sermon, we’ve considered eight moments when everyone may exercise this practice (remembering that all may, none must, some should). These eight are expressions of the priesthood of all believers, a truly Protestant principle if ever there was one.

With that in mind, why not experiment with this ancient custom? Rather than adopting it, try it for a season and see what it gives you. Don’t grade yourself as to how many of those seven moments you can remember—use the moments you do remember, to set your mind on divine things, to welcome and receive what God is giving you.

Christian worship, Christian practice, is sacramental. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.

Though unearned and undeserved, that love of God does not make us passive bystanders. Making the sign of the cross is one humble way of receiving, responding, to God. One more way to pray with the body, without words.