Tremble

Palm Sunday Sermon, April 9, 2017

audio without the beautiful congregational singing:

http://www.gracechurchamherst.org/the-rev-sarah-syer-4917/

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?  O-o-o-o sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”

Tremble. Tremble. Tremble.  What did the authors of this spiritual, the African-American slaves of the 19th century; what did they mean by this one word forever imprinted on our souls?  Were they trembling out of fear for their lives?  Or trembling out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice?  Were they trembling in anger, witnessing their friend nailed to the tree?  Or trembling out of joy for feeling the expansive, encompassing love God has for both you and me?  My friends, I want to know: why were they trembling?  For to me this one word holds so much weight.  This one word represents the heaviness of Holy Week.  This one word connects our own human narrative to the Gospel narrative.

Our Sacred Scriptures are saturated with “trembling.”  Throughout the Bible we hear the word again and again.  Like Hosea 10:11:  They will walk after the LORD, he will roar like a lion; indeed He will roar and His [children] will come trembling from the west.”  Or perhaps Psalm 99:  “The LORD reigns, let the peoples tremble; [God] is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!”  Or Philippians 2:12 “So then my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

There are references to trembling throughout the Bible, and our Holy Week narrative is no exception.  We will hear the Greek word σείω three times this week.  Yet our current English translation may make it less than obvious.  At the beginning of our procession this morning—and at the end of our Gospel reading from Matthew—we heard the verse: “When [Jesus] entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil.”  Then in the passion narrative we will hear today—and echoed back again on Good Friday: “At that moment [when Jesus died] the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.  The earth shook, and the rocks were split.”  And then again in one week’s time on Easter morning: “For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”  The city was in turmoil…. The earth shook…. The guards shook…. The Greek word σείω, found in all of these phrases, can actually be translated as “trembled.”  The city, the people of Jerusalem “trembled.”  The earth on that Good Friday “trembled.”  The guards at the tomb of Jesus “trembled.”  

But friends, is all of this trembling really a bad thing?  Could it be both positive and negative?  Could it represent both fear and joy?  Could it encompass both shouts of “Hosanna,” and cries of “crucify him?!”  I mean yes, let’s be real, trembling, physical trembling can be rather uncomfortable—sweat beading, heart racing, body quivering.  But aren’t these the same physical responses those we produce as we are falling in love?

We all know first hand that trembling has some pretty bitter moments, but could there be a sweet side to the sound as well?  Just hearing this word I flashback to times of trembling throughout my life.  The time when I shook in fear in my family’s storm cellar as the tornado sirens wailed and the winds howled.  Or the time when I watched Veronica’s granddaughter Rose bounce up and down on the toes of her newly shined shoes, overcome with excitement for the hunt to find the most glorious Easter eggs.  Or the time when side splitting laughter seized my soul.  When in slapstick comedy fashion (for the third time this past Monday) I face planted in the snow while skiing down the slushy slopes.

Trembling could be anxiety, that moment your legs shake uncontrollably in your chair as you wait for your final exam to be handed out.  But trembling could be anticipation, that moment when you quake as you walk across that stage receiving a piece of paper that represents four years of hard work.  Trembling could be distress, that moment when you heave with tears and sighing as you process the news that your partner of forty plus years has been diagnosed with a debilitating disease.  But trembling could be sheer surprise, that moment when your heart flutters and you become weak in your knees as the love of your life gets down on one knee and asks you one simple question.  Trembling could be anger, when your body shudders upon watching the violence of chemical warfare done to the suffering people of Syria.  But trembling could be joy upon seeing the hundred of thousands of people across this world, marching together this past January, mobilizing so that those in power will know we support the dignity of every human being.

My friends, trembling is sheer sensory overload.  It is when we fully give into the moment; when the emotion physically overtakes us; when we are totally present with the scene unfolding before our eyes.  And yes—as I am sure we all have experienced, and to which our Scriptures can attest—trembling can be both bitter and sweet.  And this week, this holiest of Holy weeks, you are invited to experience the sensory overload along with Christ’s closest followers; to fully give into the moment; to allow all of the emotions, all of the highs and lows of this week, to overcome you.

We are invited to join with the children of Judea, and flutter in nervous excitement as we crane our necks to see over the crowd while Jesus enters the streets of Jerusalem.  We are invited to join with James and John while they reel in rage as they drag our rabbi, our teacher away from the Garden of Gethsemane.  We are invited to join with Mary Magdalene and quiver in joyous anticipation as we prepare and share the Passover meal together with those we love.  We are invited to join Peter, and shiver with cold and fear as we await in the early hours of the morning, the sentencing of our friend.  We are invited to tremble in agony as they crucify our Lord.  We are invited to tremble with disbelief as that man—who is more than a man—appears before the tomb in seven days time.  We are invited to let every emotion of these last steps of Christ wash over us and overtake use; to feel the weight of this week and tremble, tremble, tremble.

This Holy Week we are invited to tremble in awe of a God who would do anything for us, even to the point of death on a cross.

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“Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Listen to the audio: http://www.gracechurchamherst.org/the-rev-sarah-syer-12217/

Several times in seminary, I heard there were two dualistic types of discipleship: the actives and the contemplatives.  The actives being the go-getters: creating new programs, organizing peoples, perhaps even initiating marches across the country and across the world.  The contemplatives being the spiritually centered ones: spending time reading, reflecting, and praying on behalf of others.  Listening with open ears and hearts for the voice of God in their midst.  Both models of discipleship are needed and desired within the Body of Christ.  We must have both action and contemplation.

Yet taking a look at our calling as disciples of Christ, I think we tend to lift up one form of discipleship over the other (not surprising considering our cultural context).  We live in a world that undervalues contemplation.  Instead we are taught we always have to be doing something; busying ourselves with tasks both big and small.  Even though this is the cultural norm, this is not the sole model we witness in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (although at first glance it might appear so).

Sometimes for me this Bible passage feels so ambitious for us to replicate.  The disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, drop everything to follow Christ. They are called out of their boats, out of their careers, out of their comfort zone, and they take their faith into immediate action.  Yet today’s Gospel reading is much more complex if we look to the main character.  Even after Jesus has been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and wanders in the wilderness for forty days (you think that’d be long enough), he does not go immediately; he does not begin his ministry immediately.  Instead in the first verse of this passage the Scripture states, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.”

Jesus withdrew.  Taking time to process all that has happened to him in the last few chapters.  Taking time to listen for the voice of God, his Father.  Taking time to discern what he was called to do; how he was called to reach and teach God’s people.  Jesus withdrew and took time for contemplation.

And this is not out of character for Jesus. Dare we ask: “Was he even an extrovert?”  In fact, Jesus withdraws several times throughout the jam packed Gospel narratives.  He is exacerbated both with his disciples and with the crowds.  For example, in Mark 1:35, “In the morning while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Or Luke 5:15-16,“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”  And Matthew 13:1-3, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.  Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach.  And he told them many things in parables, saying; “Listen! A sower went out to sow…”  Or who can forget those moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus withdraws from the disciples and prays to the Father for strength to meet what is coming.

In these moments of quiet contemplation, Jesus was able to understand his calling, to discern his vocation.  As Frederick Buechner would say, in Christ’s moments of solitude: Jesus found where his deep gladness would meet the world’s deep need.  But what is this deep gladness? This rootedness in who we are?  And how can we ever hope to find it ourselves?

From the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd century to the modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, this deep gladness is a pearl of great price: not one paid but acquired through quiet times of deep thought, reflecting on how indeed God knit you together with the Divine’s unique and special image.  This uniqueness is personality and temperament but it is also how we reflect on our strengths, and sometimes more so, our limitations.  Our deep gladness resides in the working out of salvation, not from an original sin point of view but from an abundant life perspective.  A perspective that leads to self discovery, self awareness, and ultimately action.  Building up the body of Christ with the deep feeling of knowing how your unique image of God mixed with divine interventions allows you to find gladness and begin to mend a very broken world.

In his times of contemplation, Jesus was able to find his deep gladness, his inner strength, his true vocation in this world.  And from this contemplation, and only from this contemplation, Jesus was able to begin his ministry.  Our Gospel for today begins with contemplation: “Jesus withdrew,” and then ends with action: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  His solitude led to social justice; his reflection led to redemption; his contemplation led to action.  “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Like Jesus, without discerning where our deep gladness lies, we can never truly give of ourselves and transform the world around us.  My friends, do we take the time as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, to listen for the word of God breaking forth into our hearts?  Let’s be honest, we at Grace Church do a phenomenal job with the action piece—with creating awareness in our communities, with marching alongside our sisters and brothers, with protesting injustice in our midst.  I do not want to halt us from this work, but I want to remind us from where such work must stem.

Now more than ever, when there are so many voices vying for our attention—from the media, to politicians, to those espousing messages of hate—; now more than ever, we need to learn to listen.  We need to hear the Word of God, the voice of the almighty stirring the silence of our hearts.  Now more than ever, we need to “double down on prayer,” as our own Bishop Doug Fisher would say.  Now more than ever, we are called to discover where God has empowered us, as individuals and as a community, so that we can empower others.

Your calling should ask you to be your unique self so that you serve as a member of the Body of Christ.  This calling, this vocation, must be about being before doing, which means that vocation is not synonymous with career.  Yes, it could be incorporated into your career. You could be a hospice nurse: walking with others in that liminal space between death and life.  Or you could be a family lawyer: helping children who are normally subjected to a corrupt justice system, to find the love they so desperately need.  Or (as so many of you are) you could be a professor: educating students to open their hearts and minds to understand the other in their midst and around the world.

Yet, like the disciples, vocation can be totally separate from your intended career.  Perhaps your vocation is being a grassroots organizer: creating networks that challenge our politicians on climate change.  Or being a nature photographer: portraying how God speaks to your soul so that maybe others can see the transcendent before their very eyes.  Or maybe being your church’s resident historian: preserving our past so that we can continue to discern our future.

All of us, now more than ever, must discern where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.  We must double down on prayer so that we can double down on social justice.  Then, and only then will we be able to hear exactly where Jesus is calling us to follow, exactly where we must go, exactly where we can meet the world’s deep need and usher forth the coming kingdom of God.

Amen.

The Darkness has not Overcome it.

“The light shines forth in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”

At Christmas I always feel super nostalgic, and so today I wanted to share some past memories with you.  As a child I was afraid of the dark.  For everything seemed much more terrifying in the dark: the normal all of a sudden paranormal.  Whenever night rolled around, I was afraid there was a monster in my closet that hid behind my clothes ready to devour me should I let it know I was sleeping.  I was afraid that whenever I felt a chill in the air, a ghost was wandering on by (like that M. Night Shyamalan film I watched too young: “The Sixth Sense”).  I was afraid that a thief would break into my house and enter the bedroom I shared with my sister.  And that’s why I connivingly chose the bed furthest from the door.  Because in loving older sister fashion, I thought the thief would get to her first so I could sneak out the window next to my bed.  I was afraid of the dark, because of the strange shadows cast in the corners of the room; because of how loudly the old floorboards creaked in the house when all was silent; because of the inability to see clearly the familiar yet now foreign shapes surrounding me.

Now I would guess that many of us as children, at one point in time, experienced this fear of the dark.  Yet I also would venture to say that this very same fear continues into our adulthood.  Maybe not the fear of physical darkness; maybe not the fear of the actual oncoming of night, but we as a culture are afraid of the dark.  We use darkness all the time as a metaphor for those moments in our lives that we would rather avoid.
Perhaps your darkness is the loss of a loved one this holiday season—whether it be through death or divorce or a move across country–attempting to avoid the grief by keeping so busy with shopping, baking, and wrapping the gifts, the sorrow can’t catch up with you.  Perhaps your darkness is sheer outrage at the state of our country, trying as you might to reconcile how we have ended up in this situation.  And jokingly, Or maybe not so jokingly, thinking fleeing the country is better than remaining.  Or perhaps your darkness is depression: hiding from your coworkers that you didn’t really laugh at that joke, that you didn’t have a relaxing vacation, and that you are most certainly not having a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

As a culture we do not think highly of these shadowed moments in our lives.  So more often than not, especially during the holiday season, on this holiest of holy days, we try to deny that they exist.  And we often cite our Scripture as supporting our view of the darkness.  In the Old Testament darkness is associated with Sheol, the underworld, with death.  During the ten plagues locusts darken the sky and blot out the sunlight.  And during the night nomadic people must be on their guard for bandits or sexual predators or murderers.  We do find these references in Scripture, yet the Word of God, as well as Christmas Day itself, is a bit more nuanced than that.  The darkness can be a scary space but it can also be a liminal space, a spiritual space, a space where the divine enters in and we meet God face to face.

What is the good news in darkness?  What if the darkness we fear wasn’t really that dark at all?  For example, in our sacred scriptures one evening in the wilderness, Jacob lays down his head on a stone and wakes in the night to see angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven.  Generations later while the Israelite slaves are running for their lives from the Egyptians, during the darkest of nights, God separates the Red Sea and guides these children across and away from danger.  In our nativity story from our Gospels narratives, angels and shepherds come to Bethlehem on that silent night to see that baby Jesus lying in the manger.  Then three magi only know their path by the illumination of a star.  They can only see the way and move to that lowly stable under the cover of night as the rest of the world is sleeping.  The darkness is not always a dangerous place because it can also be a mysterious and mystical place where God is revealed to God’s people.  “The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it.”

My friends, there will be darkness in our lives.  There will be those moments in time that we would rather avoid, those situations that we would rather pretend like they just don’t exist.  Yet God has not abandoned us in the darkness.  For our Gospel reading for today does not say the darkness did not overcome it, or the light at only one point in time shone out of the darkness.  But this translation instead states that the darkness still has not overcome the light and that the darkness never will.
God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us, the Word made flesh, the light of the world,
Jesus came in the midst of darkness and remains with us in the midst of darkness.  For the light of God in Jesus Christ can actually work within this darkness.

As Psalm 139 reminds us: for the Divine One, “The night and the day are both alike.”  And at the very beginning of it all, in Genesis chapter one, God creates the night as God separates the light from the dark.  And all of it is good.  Although the darkness may feel foreign to us at times, it is not foreign to God.  God knows it well, for God has walked with us on this very earth in the form of Jesus, the babe lying in the manger, who we celebrate today.  The Divine knows our pain and our suffering.  God sees clearly in the dark the plight of the poor and the flight of the refugee.  God hears clearly in the dark the cry of the black mother mourning her dead son and the wailing of the women of Aleppo.  And God knows our own darkness.  God knows our fear our anger, and our sorrow—those emotions we as a society have denounced as negative.  Yet no matter how often we try to push them down, they continue to bubble up to the surface.  For they have something to tell us.  We do not have to be afraid of the dark, for Christ will always be there with us.  “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” And well, you know the rest.

Sometimes in the dark, that is actually when we see the light of Christ most clearly and brightly, for there are no other lights vying for our attention.  That is actually where we finally see God face to face, for every other face is blurred in the shadows, foreign and unknown to us.  That is actually where we meet our Maker and begin the hard inner work of the life of faith that is much easier to deny in the light.  Where is your darkness this Christmas or perhaps Christmas seasons of old?  Where is God moving your soul through sorrow, anger or fear?  What are the difficult questions God is asking you of yourself and of the world that you would rather avoid?  What work is the light of God doing in you and through you in the darkness?
The light shines forth in the darkness this day and always.  And the darkness will never overcome it.  Instead Christ, the one true light, will be with us in the midst of the darkness: guiding us, illuminating us, and yes, challenging us, but never ever abandoning us.  So no matter how much it may grip you, do not fear, the Lord is with us.  In both the brightest of day and the darkest of nights, Emmanuel, God is with us.

So let us take a moment, no matter what we are feeling, no matter what fears arise.  Let us take a moment to celebrate that mystery of God with us today: that bouncy baby boy cooing and perhaps screaming in the manger.  Mother and father are exhausted, and yes, perhaps a bit fearful at what is to come.  But they are also happier than they could have ever imagined.  Joy and fear in this moment coexist.  Let us celebrate that God chose to walk with us and never leave us.  Let us celebrate the birth of the God incarnate, Jesus Christ, that will forever be the light of our lives no matter how dark it gets.

Do not be terrified.

Proper 28, Year C; Isaiah 65:17-25; Canticle 9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19

The first time I felt I could call the Pioneer Valley home was at age seventeen, as I was discerning which university to attend.  On a snowy April morning I recall riding down route 47 with my mother and a family friend.  And as we drove over the town line into South Hadley, I saw a familiar sign that I have seen across this country.  It read: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.”  And in that moment I felt at home, I felt safe, and I felt that this could be my new community.  In that moment, I felt that even as a southerner, even as an outsider, perhaps I would find welcome.

And today, I want to extend that same welcome to you. So whether this is your first time at Grace Church, or if you have been here for decades: you are welcome here.  If you are young or old: you are welcome here.  If you are a student, or a professor, or faculty and staff: you are welcome here.  If you are rich: you are welcome here.  If you are poor: you are welcome here.  If you are black: you are welcome here.  If you are white: you are welcome here.  If you are latino/hispanic: you are welcome here.  If you are gay or lesbian or straight: you are welcome here.  If you are transgender or do not ascribe to any gender: you are welcome here.  If you were born in this country: you are welcome here.  If you immigrated to this country and now call it home: you are welcome here.  If you are a Christian: you are welcome here.  But if you don’t identify as Christian: you are still welcome here.  If you are a woman: you are welcome here.  If you are a man: you are welcome here.  If you are a libertarian: you are welcome here.  If you are a socialist: you are welcome here.  If you voted for Donald Trump: you are welcome here.  If you voted for Hillary Clinton: you are welcome here.  If you are a human being, seeking a safe space today: you are welcome here.

My friends, the welcome of the Divine supersedes the welcome of any political party or affiliation, any identifying markers.  You all are welcome here.  One of the first steps of discipleship, is modeling ourselves after the radical hospitality of Jesus.  Meaning that all of God’s children are welcome here.  Yet today we find that being a disciple of Christ, walking in the footsteps of Jesus and of the saints that have come before us, does not end with this embracing welcome, this radical hospitality.

Being a disciple of Christ means not only a conversion of our minds to accept all who enter here, but it means something much more difficult, a conversion of our hearts—a level of deep introspection where we rise above the anxiety continually permeating our culture. For me the most pertinent line in the entirety of our Gospel reading for today is when Jesus speaks to his disciples: “Do not be terrified.”  Do not be terrified.  Do not be scared.  Do not be afraid.  Easier said than done though, right?  It is a normal human emotion that we all face.  Every single one of us in this room has experienced fear, maybe even more heightened over the past few days.  And when that fear finally and stealthily creeps in, it is difficult to push it back out of our lives.  Instead it begins to control every fiber of our being.  Worry pervades our thoughts of the future, our mind bouncing from one dark scenario to another, to another.  And as the anxiety continues to prevail, we become paralyzed, all of our movements must be calculated, controlled, confined so that we do not encounter that of which we are afraid (ultimately the fear of suffering and death).

Yet today of all days, this week of all weeks, Jesus tells us:“Do not be terrified.” How many times have we heard these words throughout our sacred Scriptures?  It is the running narrative of our Gospel, of our salvation history, of the relationship between God and humankind.  In the Old Testament we hear Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid or terrified because of them,  for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Or Joshua 1:9: Have I not commanded you?  Be strong and courageous.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Or Isaiah 41:3: “But now, this is what the Lord says—He who created you, Jacob, He who formed you, Israel: do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you and you are mine.”

And this story, this narrative of hope, continues into the New Testament.  In Luke 1:30 the angel Gabriel, sent from God, tells an unwed mother Mary, a woman on the margins: “Do not be afraid.” In Matthew 14:27, as Jesus walks on water, making the impossible possible, he cries out to a misfit group of Middle Eastern men:“Take courage!  It is I!  Do not be afraid.”  Or earlier in Matthew 10:26-27, as Jesus sends out the disciples to preach the Gospel to every beloved child of God, he encourages his followers: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.  What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”

My friends, too long as a country we have been afraid—hiding in the dark away from one another.  And now that fear has surfaced; that fear is manifesting itself across the United States; that fear finally has been brought to the light.  Yet even if we, as American citizens, have given into the fear in the past, we as Christians are called to rise above that terror now at the present hour.  As Christ encourages us in today’s reading from Luke, just as the world of the early church appears as though it is beginning to fall apart, we hear Jesus say to the disciples: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.  So make make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”

In these verses Jesus expels our rising anxiety as unnecessary, instead replacing it with the fortitude of the Spirit,“with the audacity to muster courage in the face of fear, the boldness to speak in the face of suffering” (Nancy Lynne Westfield, Feasting on the Word). By not giving into the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day (Ps 91:5), we are able to do more than we ever could have imagined under the powerlessness that comes from paralyzing fear.

For our power does not come from political platforms, or social media, or temporal authority, or our own arrogance and pride.  But our power comes from Christ’s liberation of fear and death.  Our power comes from the transformative effect of God’s love.  Our power comes from the knowledge that God is working it all out, bringing about a new heaven and a new earth.  And we are capable, if we rid ourselves of the fear, to participate in God’s creative process.  We will have the privilege and the power to testify: to dispel hate, to speak truth in love, to welcome all into this place.

It is not an easy task ahead of us my friends, but if we find the endurance, we will gain the very souls we as individuals, and we as a country, had thought we had lost.  So do not be afraid.  Do not be scared.  Do not be terrified.  For today and in the days to come, we do not meet the challenge alone.  For we have Jesus to walk with us, and we all stand together to testify.

Amen.

“How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.”

Sermon for Sunday, October 16th

Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

I have the privilege of being married to a hospice chaplain.  And when this husband of mine isn’t graciously editing my Sunday sermons, I am blessed to hear stories of encounters and interactions with his numerous patients.  Some of the most beautiful narratives occur with those individuals who for whatever reason (whether it be proximity to death, or Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or the haziness of medication), those individuals whose hearts are somehow stirred by the Word of God.

In one encounter an elderly woman who was confused and depressed, sobbing uncontrollably, blaming herself for the lack of her son’s presence, was finally able to take a full breath, able to let the Spirit breathe into her lungs and calm her anxiety as she heard the words of Psalm 139: “O Lord…where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?… If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.”  Or another woman, who had been unresponsive for an entire visit, not sitting up, not opening her eyes, not speaking a sound, but as soon as she heard the words of Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me,” she grabbed the chaplain’s hand and squeezed, recognizing the softly spoken words of comfort and hope.  Or a man struggling with severe Alzheimer’s, no longer able to string words together to form a simple sentence, but as the chaplain broke into the the words that Jesus taught us—recorded in Matthew 6 and Luke 11—,as Nathan began to pray the man began to moan.  And his lips formed the words of that prayer imprinted on so many of our hearts:“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”

In the last moments, in the fleeting final breath, the words of Scripture speak to so many individuals.  Becoming words of tranquility, words of comfort and hope, and perhaps even the only words of recognition.  As our Psalm for this morning states:“How sweet are your words to my taste!  They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” The Word of the Lord offers sweet, sweet serenity.

And although my friends the majority of this Psalm uses the word law and its synonyms—such as commandment, decrees, and judgments— I would encourage us to consider how law and scripture are intertwined. To an ancient Hebrew population, these were not two distinct categories but an integral relationship.  It is no accident that in Judaism the word, “torah,” refers both to religious law as well as to the first five books of the Bible.  Scripture is the framework for which the law has been given to the people of God.  If we replace the word law and its synonyms with Scripture and its synonyms, Psalm 119 still holds true:“Oh, how I love your Scriptures! All the day long it is in my mind.  Your sacred word has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me.  I have more understanding than all my teachers, for the Bible is my study.”

Perhaps we may think the Word of God is reserved for the sanctuary on Sunday mornings, or used in the classroom as some historical or literary perspective, or even sought out in our darkest hours, searching for some semblance of hope.  Yes it is all these things but is so much more than this.  Our Scriptures, the Word of God, are living and moving, dynamic and active, ready to enlighten our lives if we let it.  I cannot even begin to tell you how exciting it is for me to encounter a passage that I have heard over and over again becoming new to me in a way I never saw coming.  Speaking truth into my life, not as if I was interpreting Scripture, but as if Scripture was interpreting me; not as if I was reading the word of God, but as if the word of God was reading me.

For example, a passage I preached on this summer, Jeremiah 1 states: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  These verses had always been a word that spoke to me personally, quelling my fears, calming my anxieties, making me feel loved in the midst of loneliness.  Yet when I heard this sacred script again this past August, these words were not just directed at me personally but were for every one of the children and youth in this parish.  They became a mission, my mission, a goal that during my time at Grace Church, I would strive to make each child entrusted into my care feel like a beloved child of God.

And as I continue to contemplate how Scripture has shifted for me, I think back on Mark’s passion narrative.  It was never one I particularly connected with, never one that seemed to stand out to me (the only intriguing piece of the narrative being that no disciple stood with Christ at the foot of the cross).  Yet on a labor day 2015, as my mother-in-law lay on a hospital bed in Houston, with doctors and nurses telling my family she would most likely never wake up, I turned to the daily office readings for solace.  During that time of morning prayer I read the words for Mark’s crucifixion of Christ.  In that moment when I thought all was lost, that this was indeed the end, I instead felt the faintest glimmer of hope for I knew that if that morning I was reading of Christ’s death, the next day I would read of Christ’s glorious resurrection.  And on that Tuesday evening, on that day when I had read the words of the resurrection, I saw Sally, my mother-in-law, open her eyes for the first time, fluttering ever so faintly.  It was a slight sign that even though we feared the truth as Mary, Martha, and the Magdalene feared the truth of Christ’s return, even though we feared to hope, God’s hope was still there, and it was our choice whether or not to embrace it.

Even today’s parable from Luke of the unjust judge, speaks differently today for me than it has in years past.  This unjust judge sounds like a number of corrupt politicians in our American system.  Take your pick on whose name you would like this judge to represent.  Yet even though this individual neither feared God nor had respect for people, God’s justice was still granted, the widow was still taken care of, God’s will would still be done no matter who was the judge, and no matter who will be holding political office after this election cycle.

My friends, our Scriptures know us, know each and every one of us.  Know what we need, what we desire, and what we are too scared to ask.  Because our holy Scriptures are the inspired word of God, as our reading today from 2 Timothy so kindly reminds us.  And by inspired I do not mean that we take each verse as literal word for word, but the Greek for “inspired by God,” found in 2 Timothy 3:16, can also be translated as “God-breathed.”  Like the words from our creation narrative in Genesis, the same breath that gave Adam and Eve life, that gave humankind life, that deemed all of creation, “good,” that same breath is embedded in our Scriptures.  Giving the Bible a life of its own, leading us, guiding us, still speaking to us in new ways every single day.  And because God breathed life both into us and into Scripture, this story of salvation is our story as well.  We are interconnected.

Now my friends, this does not mean our relationship with Scripture is always warm and cuddly.  It does not mean that we necessarily are thrilled with the words place before us.  But it does mean we are called to wrestle with the word of God.  We are called to ingest it, process it, be patient with it, and finally breathe back out into the world—through the witness of our very lives, through our daily actions—the word of God, the law of love, the covenant that—as Jeremiah states today—God will write upon our hearts.  Our Scriptures, the Word of God given to us long ago and still speaking to us today, will never be silent, will never be out of date, will never be inapplicable to our lives.

So we have an opportunity before us as we discern what it means to be a disciple of Christ in this modern American culture.  As we discern what it means to be the church in the 21st century, will we pick up our Bibles?  Will we turn through the pages of Scripture?  Will we wrestle?  Will we digest?  Will we listen?  And will we allow ourselves to be changed in the process?

Sensing Christ in the Midst of Doubt

The Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 5:27-32; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

It has been one week since Easter Sunday.  One week since children held delightfully decorated eggs in their hands, felt their weight, touched their smooth shells, and cracked some open for a sugar high only Christmas and Easter can duplicate.  It has been one week since we sang in joyful alleluias: voices soaring, bells pealing, trumpet and organ resounding.  It has been one week since that delicious lunch, or brunch, or dinner with a scrumptious glazed ham, or delectable roast chicken, or as many syrup covered pancakes as you could lay your hands on.  It has been one week since the guests were in town and smells faintly wafting through the house of your grandmother’s citrus perfume, or your grand-baby’s lavender lotion, or your father’s full flavored pipe tobacco.  It has been one week since we witnessed that beautiful celebratory scene unfold, that holy day to beat out all holy days—Easter Sunday.

Yet our scripture readings for today do not seem to allude to such a momentous occasion.  Today we are not met with continued celebration, with, “Alleluia Christ is risen! The Lord is risen, indeed alleluia!” But instead we are met with the struggles of the early Church.

For example, in Acts the apostles are professing their faith in Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord.  Yet as we read in the verses before and after this particular passage, the apostles are not only met with insults and frustration, but with numerous imprisonments and death threats.  Then in our reading from Revelation, written a generation or even two after the Easter event, these seven churches in Asia are being encouraged that Christ will indeed come again, that their suffering, their persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire will one day be alleviated.  And in our Gospel story today, probably a story and a character with which we are very familiar, the budding Church is faced with new struggles.  This Gospel narrative is directed at an audience that has not physically witnessed the resurrection.  These early Christians have not seen Christ with their own eyes, have not heard his voice, have not touched the wounds in his side, hands and feet.  This is why we are told in the Scripture, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”  All of the apostles and original disciples are dead and gone.  The witnesses of the resurrection are no longer present.  All that remains are their stories.  And those Christians that are left are called to have faith in an event that they did not see, taste, touch, hear or smell.

The apostle Thomas becomes a stand in figure for all of those in the early church who had to wrestle with their faith. Believing in a risen Christ others had seen, but they had not. A risen Christ who had once walked upon this earth, but had not walked among them.  A risen Christ who defies the natural world by overcoming the chains of death and living again.  The early Church struggled to find a balance between doubt and belief.

But friends, let us be honest today.  Let us own up to the reality of our own journeys of faith.  Even in the midst of the celebration of Easter, even in the midst of the joy, in the midst of the alleluias: doubt is real.  Disbelief is real.  Questions of faith are real.  And these questions arise in the Easter season just as much as any other season in the church year.  Just because Jesus Christ is Risen, does not mean these questions go away, pushed to the back of a dark and empty tomb.  We all, at some point during our relationship with God, experience doubt.

This doubt can take on many shapes and forms.  It can be outright disbelief in God, or a reluctance to speak the words of the Nicene Creed.  It can be a split second of uncertainty as to God’s Divine purpose for your life, or the skepticism of whether or not Jesus Christ did rise again from the dead.  It can be a mistrust of the Church,  or a fear that the Gospel might actually change us for the better.  All of these are moments, instances, of doubt.  And we all, no matter where we currently stand on our faith journeys, have fallen on this spectrum of disbelief at one point in time or another.  The name “Thomas” from our Gospel narrative, could just as easily be replaced with Sarah, or Chris, or Janet, or Alex, or Mary, or Tom, or you.  Doubt is not something new to Christianity, post the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.  And the words of today’s Gospel, “Blessed are you who believe and yet have not seen,” are just as true to us in the 21st century, as they were for the early church of the 1st century.

Even two thousand years ago believers demanded scientific evidence.  All of our post-resurrection narratives, all of the post-Easter encounters with the Risen Christ, centered around empirical verification.  It is about seeing and touching Jesus.  In all of these narrative, this man that they thought was dead is somehow now with the disciples in flesh and blood, eating and drinking, talking and listening, physically present in the world.  Mary Magdalene does not know her teacher is present in the Garden on Easter Sunday, until he calls her by name.  Then all of a sudden she can see him.  The two disciples on the road to Emmaus can not recognize Christ as they encounter him on their journey, until they sit down and break bread together.  Then they see this supposed stranger for who he really is.  And Thomas does not believe until he sees Christ enter that locked room, with fresh wounds from where the nails entered Jesus’ hands and feet.  For the apostles witnessing the resurrection, journeying towards faith in the Risen Lord, was a sensory experience.  Amidst their own doubt and disbelief, they wanted to see, touch, taste, smell and hear that their friend and teacher was alive.

Our own journeys are also sensory experiences.  We ourselves want to physically witness the resurrection. And although we are encouraged, “Blessed are those who have not seen,
And yet have come to believe,” we want to empirically probe our faith, to see, touch, taste, smell and hear our God.  And friends, this is exactly what we do in Christian community.  In the midst of our doubt and disbelief, we encounter the Risen Christ with one another.  Knowing that no matter how much uncertainty plays a part, we are lifting each other up.  We are strengthened in our faith and we come to know God through participating in our community and invoking all of our senses.

We hear the story of the resurrection told over and over again b listening to the faith journeys of our friends, by reading the words of Scripture aloud in this sanctuary every Sunday, by hearing the cries of those suffering and responding to their call.  We taste the resurrection in the breaking of the bread, our Eucharistic feast, in sipping a cup of tea with a fellow parishioner who is struggling, in scarfing down soup and stew in a group of young adults meeting and talking about their faith, no matter the pressure placed upon them on their campuses.  We smell the resurrection as we sniff the beautiful Easter lilies when we approach the chancel steps, as the aromas of burgers and hot dogs diffuses throughout the annual Pentecost picnic, as chrism oil lingers on the head of an infant, long after the baptismal blessing.  We touch the resurrection in a bear hug given at the peace, or chopping potatoes and beets during a youth retreat to Heifer Farm, or the newlywed kiss as two are given to one another in holy matrimony.  And friends, we do see the resurrection as well, even if we do not see a thirty-three year old middle Eastern Man who bears the marks of torture standing before us.  However,  we see the Risen Christ in the world around us: in the faces of both friends and strangers, in the rising of the sun every morning after the darkest of nights, in the renewal of the earth every spring after unexpected winter storm has blown through (frozen streams trickling to life, bulbs blossoming and blooming, a new energy reverberating throughout all of creation).

This is what we do with our doubt.  When we, like Thomas, cannot fathom that Christ is Risen we meet that doubt, that disbelief head on when we engage it with all of our senses. Testing it.  Probing it. Using our own incarnated humanness to meet the incarnated divine.  All I have to do is look around this church and I know that the Risen Lord is here.  Can you see him too?

The Time is Now: A sermon on the Climate Change Catastrophe

 

Donegal

Advent 1, Year C

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

I don’t know about you, but every year at this time I get a bit nostalgic.  With the Advent countdown to the Christ child now begun, I reminisce over Christmases past and the weeks of preparation beforehand—which usually involved eating way too many of my mother’s infamous coconut macaroons, following my father as we hunted for the perfect Georgia pine to place in our living room, and of course arguing with my brother and sister over who would get the last piece of chocolate from our family’s only Advent calendar.  But at the start of this year’s Advent season, at the commencement of the liturgical new year, and with the particular readings given in the lectionary today, I’ve been thinking of a holiday season a little further from home.

Two years ago about this time, my fiancé’ and I found ourselves on the northern shore of Ireland.  In County Donegal in December we experienced the wild weather of the British Isles.  Perhaps one of the most palpable moments was standing atop a rocky cliff, looking out and seeing the waves of the deep salt sea crashing around the old eternal rocks.  The wind whirling about me so intensely that I could lean forward into it—my feet planted on the ground yet all my weight, my entire body, suspended in mid air by the wind.  At that moment the words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate

(a hymn often sung at Episcopal ordinations) filled my ears:

I bind unto myself today

the virtues of the starlit heaven

the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,

the whiteness of the moon at even,

the flashing of the lightning free,

the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

the stable earth, the deep salt sea,

around the old eternal rocks.[1]

These words that I had chanted time and time again throughout my journeys across the British Isles, never rang more true than in that moment, suspended in the air atop that rocky cliff in Ireland.  They are words ingrained in the Celtic tradition.  It is a theology that believes that the God incarnate—whom we shall celebrate in four weeks time—is present within creation, and that we as human beings are inextricably bound to this creation—in all of its enchanting beauty and terrifying power.  We are not above or separated from this good earth but we are wholly a part of it.

These verses of St. Patrick’s Breastplate rang true again for me as I read through today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel—verses full of vivid natural imagery:

Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves… Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.”[2]

For many of us today in our Western American context, this passage of Scripture is quite difficult for us to digest.  These lines may harbor fear and terror in many of our hearts, and we may hear these as words of chaos and turmoil.  Perhaps because—unlike those Celtic Christians whose daily lives were interwoven with earth, sea, and sky—many of us have the ability (or perhaps the luxury) to ignore the natural world, to shelter ourselves from the elements, to unbind ourselves to the power of God in creation.  In many ways the technological advancements of the modern age have fostered a loss of respect for our earth.  These words from Luke’s Gospel frighten us. Because in all honesty, they assume we no longer control the world around us; we no longer bind up creation; manipulate it; bid creation to do our will and ours alone.  Instead these words from Scripture depict a creation that breaks free from human bounds.

Have we not seen signs of such liberation already?  The environment responding to the burden we have placed upon it?  This generation has witnessed greenhouse gases increasing, our atmosphere disintegrating, glaciers receding, sea levels rising, fisheries depleting, crops dying, smog billowing, tropical storms raging, floods devastating, and perhaps even more than we dare to admit.  We have seen those signs of a world harmed by humanity’s controlling influence.  Instead of viewing the world around us as a reflection of the God incarnate, instead of holding respect for creation’s beauty and power, instead of protecting the earth of which God named us stewards at creation, not only our generation but also the many generations that have come before us have brought upon this earth the sad reality that is climate change.

Yet although the situation looks dire, although the numbers are frightening, although the solution appears impossible, if we inwardly digest our Advent readings for today we are called to imagine an alternative future for our earth. For we as Christians know that God can make all things new, that God can recreate the world as we know it, that God can restore humanity into right relationship with God’s creation.

A creation where we can see the star-lit heaven no matter where we live; where the sun’s rays offer life and not death for the vegetation of this earth; where the moon controls tides that skirt our shores instead of consume them.  A creation where the flashing of the lightning free and the whirling winds tempestuous shocks, signals the Son of Man coming on the clouds; where the stable earth gifts us with abundant food and shelter; where the deep salt sea is full of more creatures than we can count; and where we worship the presence of God in creation on these old eternal rocks.  We imagine a creation where the wolf and the lamb can lie down beside one another.[3]  A creation where “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[4]  A creation where God looks at all God has made and proclaims with voice echoing throughout the whole earth: “It is very good.”[5]

And this work, this cosmic reimagining, this recreation of the world as depicted in apocalyptic texts will be done by God with or without our help.  However, as Christians we are called not to be weighed down with the worries of this life, but we are called to be alert.  We are called to stand up and raise our heads.  We are called to pay attention, to take action, for God’s redeeming work is drawing near.  At the start of the new year in the liturgical calendar, at the commencement of Advent—when we feel ever more viscerally that God is with us—, we are called to recommit ourselves to the God incarnate, to make a new year’s resolution to care for creation.

My friends in Christ, the time is now. For commencing tomorrow, November 30th, is the United Nations Conference on Climate Change held in Paris, France.  It will hopefully be a moment in history when countries from across the globe can come together and unite on an approach to halt climate change in its tracks.  At such a crucial crossroads in time, we have work to do.

As Christians we pray.  In our prayers of the people we ask of God: “Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.”[6]  We also pray that those who are about to make such world altering decisions may be led by the Spirit to protect our planet.  As Christians we preach.  We allow the Gospel to speak truth in love.  We illuminate the words of our Sacred Scriptures to bring a moral vocabulary to the climate change conversation.  Using Genesis to speak of the goodness of God’s creation, and how we as human beings are stewards of creation.  Or the words of our apocalyptic writings—such as today’s reading from Luke or passages from the prophets like Jeremiah—reimagining a world made new and a right relationship between humanity and creation.  As Christians we witness.  We stand with our community against environmental injustice by joining together at the Global Climate March on the Amherst town common tonight at 6:00. Or by attending the rally for jobs, justice, and climate in Boston on December 12th, recognizing that climate and poverty are integrally intertwined.

On this First Sunday of Advent, at the commencement of a new liturgical year, when it is easy to reminisce as we reflect on the past coming of Christ—God incarnate brought into the world—, let us also remember that Advent is not solely a time to contemplate the past but the moment to look to the future.  It is the time to proclaim that Christ will come again, harnessing all the power and glory of the natural world.  It is the time to be alert, turning our attention to the cries of the world around us.  It is the time to stand up, raise our heads, and witness God’s redeeming love that reverberates throughout every corner of creation.

Amen.

 

[1] Hymn 370

[2] Luke 21:25, 27

[3] Isaiah 11:6

[4] Amos 5:24

[5] Genesis 1:31

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 388.