“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?

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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.

 

Do You Believe in Angels?

A sermon for St. Michael & All Angels

September 27, 2015

Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; John 1:47-51

My fifth grade year was the only year I was ever in a Christmas pageant.  The Episcopal church my family attended at the time, in downtown Atlanta, was so enormous and there were so many children that only the fifth graders were allowed to participate in the coveted Christmas pageant.  Then to top it off, we had to audition for each of the parts in the play!  There were no handouts, no volunteering, but each role was meticulously selected for each student.

Like the majority of the other fifth grade girls in my Sunday school class, I wanted to play the part of Gabriel: the messenger from God sent to bring glad tidings of great joy.  I mean come on, Gabriel is pretty awesome.  You get to wear this giant set of feathery wings with a golden halo around your head.  And if you want to go all out: throw some glitter in your hair like you just don’t care.

And yet, on that day when the teachers announced our parts, the anticipation in the classroom building, I was handed a sheet of paper that said: Micah…  And I thought: “Now who the heck is Micah?”  My later seminary self would come to find out that Micah was perhaps one of the coolest Old Testament prophets, who prophesied the birth of Christ (ergo why Micah had a long spiel at the start of our Christmas pageant).  However, for my fifth grade self, all that mattered was that Micah was not Gabriel.  And I think it’s probably safe to say that angels hold a place of importance and awe, not only for ten year-old Sarah, but also perhaps in our collective imaginations as well.

For example, our Prek-5th grade Sunday school classes last week, learned about our Old Testament reading for today: Jacob’s dream, where he sees angels ascending and descending on a stairway to heaven.  And when the children of Grace Church were asked to imagine these angels from our passage in Genesis, the came up with beautiful creations.  In their artwork we see a plethora of human-like figures with wings, halos, and bright colors abundant.

I’m pretty much sure that everyone, no matter how young or old, can picture in your mind some beautiful, otherworldly, mystical creature that we all would know as an angel.  Yet why are angels so written on our hearts?  So imprinted on our souls?  So entrenched in our psyches?  Especially in a culture where sometimes angels are considered fairy tales, mythical stories, or some fluff to enhance a child’s bedtime prayer?

If I asked you the question: “Do you believe in angels,” what would your answer actually be?  “I don’t know?”  Or perhaps a firm, “No.”  Maybe a: “Well I don’t believe in those freaky winged creature things, but I do believe people here on earth are put in our lives for a reason, and they are the real angels.”

So then why do these seraphim & cherubim, these heavenly beings, take such a firm hold in our imaginations?  Perhaps because, in our heart of hearts, we want to believe in angels.  We want to believe that like St. Gabriel in the Christmas pageant, angels bring us God’s good news, an incarnational message.  We want to believe that like St. Michael in our reading from Revelation, angels act as our warriors, defending us against all harm.  We want to believe that there are heavenly forces at play, working out God’s divine plan in a way that encourages us long our journey of faith.

Such a heavenly influence is most definitely the case in our reading today from Genesis.  Jacob, who has just deceived both his Father, Isaac, and older Brother, Esau, has fled from his home in Beersheba and is making his way to Haran, across the Arabian Peninsula.  Jacob is alone, away from home for the first time. Jacob is vulnerable, wandering through the endless desert.  Jacob is exhausted, and lays his weary head down on a stone for a little while.

And yet, in that ordinary place, and upon that ordinary stone, something extraordinary happens.  Jacob, who is far from a saint at this point in our Bible story, dreams an amazing dream.  He witnesses a mystical vision.  He sees a stairway stretching from heaven to earth, and angels ascending and descending, climbing up and down and up and down.  Then, in midst of this majestic and otherworldly sight, that in and of itself must have been difficult to believe, Jacob is confronted not only with angels, but with God himself.  God, standing right beside him, then speaks to Jacob, promising God’s presence throughout the duration of his pilgrimage, throughout the duration of Jacob’s life, and in the lives of all his future descendants.  As with Abraham and Isaac before, God promises to continue this divine journey with Jacob.

Just as soon as the vision began, t is just as quickly gone.  And Jacob wakes from his wild sleep, not saying to himself: “What a crazy dream,” but instead: “Surely the Lord is in this place!”  Jacob does not negate this divine encounter just because it’s a dream, but instead he jumps from that less than comfy stone pillow on that dusty desert floor, and declares that God has come near, that God has been here, that “This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”  Jacob emphatically shouts to all creation that he has encountered the Divine.

Yet Jacob’s encounter with God & with the angels, could have easily been ignored, could have easily been brushed aside, could have easily been sloughed off as just some crazy dream (Maybe due to that funky jerky Jacob ate right before he went to bed…).  Jacob could have given every reason in the book, explaining away why he didn’t really see what he thought he saw and why he didn’t hear what he thought he heard.  But instead Jacob chooses to reside in this liminal space, he chooses to believe in his dream, he chooses to live in the mystery.

And yet we must remember, that one person’s encounter with heavenly beings, may not appear the same as the next’s.  I personally cannot attest to having some angelic vision, but I can attest to having a mystical experience. And with my ordination quickly approaching, there has been one experience in particular that has been on my mind.

On that last day of summer camp, on a hot July evening, as I sat in Camp McDowell’s chapel, listening to the words of a sermon about Mary Magdalene and her utter love and devotion for Christ—something happened. As the preacher’s words hung in the humid air, a tidal wave of emotions washed over me and it felt as though there was a fire burning inside of me, engulfing me from the inside out.  And yet, I was not harmed, but empowered, emblazoned, and suddenly words came into my mind.  These words did not emit from some Divine megaphone, but instead it was as if they were written on my heart, imprinted on my very soul.  The words that said: “This is what you are called to do.  You are called to preach my love to my people.”

And as tears ran down my fourteen year-old face, all of a sudden something clicked, and I knew that I was called to be a priest in God’s church.  The terrified, vulnerable, insecure teenager in me could have easily and completely ignored this encounter.  In all honesty, my life would have been just fine. But I look back on the pilgrimage that has been my life thus far, and I see how choosing, as Jacob did, to live in such moments of mystery has led me to this very place, has led me here to Grace Church, has led me to a community that is so vibrant and full of life that I cannot wait to see what the Spirit will continue to do here.  So I must admit that God really knew what God was doing over a decade ago.

I am sure others of you have some synchronistic moments you are thinking of, where an encounter with the Divine forever changed the trajectory of your own life; each individual’s experience being vastly different then the next’s.

Friends, in all honesty my goal here today is not to convince you one way or another whether or not angels exist, to tell you the clergy have all the spiritual answers, but indeed it is the opposite of that.  As we have read in the stories of our ancestors in Scripture, as we have heard from various friends of faith, and perhaps as we have experienced our very selves, there are so many unknowns, so many unfathomable moments, so much that is truly indescribable, that we haven’t even come close to scratching the surface of understanding the spiritual realm.

This unknowing means we should be open to the mystery of it all even more.  We should be open to the mystery that God can choose to become incarnate and walk among us.  We should be open to the mystery that the Spirit is working here at Grace Church, knowing that this community truly is capable of embodying God’s love.  We should be open to the mystery that through the celebration of the Eucharist, somehow mere bread and wine is turned (in some form or fashion) into the Body and Blood of Christ.

So much of our faith is being willing to live in the liminal space, to believe in Divine dreams, to live in the moments of mystery.  Even if that mystery, has feathery wings and a golden halo.

Our Lenten Pilgrimage

A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B

Mark 1:9-15

 

A shot taken at San Damiano while on pilgrimage in Assisi, Italy

A shot taken at San Damiano while on pilgrimage in Assisi, Italy

 

I must admit,

I was not prepared to hike down the mountain.

I was not prepared to leave the spiritual elation

Of the season of Epiphany,

I was not prepared to follow Peter, James, and John

Off of the peak where we heard of Christ’s transfiguration.

I was not prepared on this past Ash Wednesday,

To admit I was dust,

To begin the forty days of fasting, praying, and alms giving.

I was not prepared for the journey through the never-ending wilderness.

 

Yet today we are called to begin our pilgrimage of Lent,

To walk side by side with Jesus,

Through his hunger and thirsting,

Through his tempting by Satan,

And wander back with him back to his home in Galilee.

 

Yet how is this forty-day period,

Which perhaps we are following begrudgingly in order to get to Easter,

A pilgrimage?

This wandering in the wilderness,

This Lenten season

Is a pilgrimage because it is driven by the Spirit,

It require us to trust in God,

And it allows for a time for self-reflection and rediscovery.

 

Phil Cousineau, the author of The Art of Pilgrimage writes,

What makes pilgrimage sacred is the longing behind the journey.

 

When I began my preparation to study abroad at Cambridge University last fall,

With feet firmly planted on the soil of the states,

I felt a stirring in my soul,

I felt a strong desire to journey to Scotland,

To visit the homeland of my ancestors,

To walk in the footsteps of the saints,

And it was a longing I could not ignore.

I felt driven,

Almost uncontrollably,

To this sacred space and life changing land.

 

And on this first Sunday of Lent,

In today’s Gospel,

In Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism,

We hear, “And the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.”

“The Spirit drove him,

Out into the wilderness.”

Christ’s journey begins

Before he takes one foot out of the water to step onto that desert sand.

As the Holy Ghost descends from heaven,

And enters into Christ

He cannot ignore the driving force of the Spirit of God.

And he must go.

 

And we, sitting in the pews of Grace Church,

Have also felt this same pulling of the soul.

We reside in a world, in a century,

Where going to church on a Sunday morning,

Is no longer the societal norm.

Instead,

After talking to the youth of this church,

I have learned the painful reality that calling oneself a Christian

In Massachusetts in 2015

Can lead to ridicule and bullying

And being declared, “Weird,”

And, “Un-cool.”

Yet we all are here

Because there is a longing,

A stirring within our souls we cannot ignore.

The Spirit has driven us to search for the Divine in our midst.

 

 

In his book on pilgrimage, Cousineau also writes,
“We can plan only so much. Then we must let go and trust in the God of synchronicity.”

 

While preparing for my pilgrimage to Scotland,

This type A, ENFJ personality

Planned, Planned and then planned some more.

I planned,

The sites I would visit,

The transportation I would take,

The clothes I would need,

To have the safest and most comfortable journey possible.

Yet the most transformative moments of my travels

Were the moments that were completely un-planned and unexpected.

Like a spontaneous hike across the isle of Kerrara,

A wild island off the coast of Oban, Scotland

Only accessible by ferry,

Inhabited my less than ten individuals.

 

As I walked across this isle,

Pulling my soaked feet out of the bog,

Blisters forming on my heels,

Hope sinking

It seemed like I would never reach the castle ruins,

On the Western end of the island.

 

Yet just as I was about to turn back,

I crested a hill covered with purple thistle and heather

And below me I saw the castle ruins,

Sitting stilly over the crashing turquoise waves of the aggressive Atlantic Ocean.

And it was one of the most majestic sites I have ever seen.

I saw God in all of the creation surrounding me.

It was in this moment that was not on my itinerary,

That I had not brought my hiking boots for,

Where I felt so close to God.

 

In today’s Gospel,

As Jesus sets forth on his forty days of wandering in the wilderness,

We do not hear much of his preparation.

In fact it seems as though Christ has taken nothing with him

Into the desert beyond the Jordan.

As soon as the Spirit descends upon him and drives him out,

Jesus goes,

Without food,

Without water,

Without shelter.

Yet Jesus trusts in his father in heaven.

Jesus rides through the temptations of Satan,

As recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke,

And comes out on the other side of these struggles,

Eating the food of heaven,

Waited upon by angels.

 

And as we enter our own wilderness,

As we begin this forty days of Lent,

No matter how prepared we may or may not be,

We are called to let go of the control we pretend to have over our own lives.

And to trust in God.

We are called to remember that from dust we came and to dust we shall return.

As Thoreau once wrote

We are called back to:

“Simplicity,

Simplicity,

Simplicity,”

Through prayer, fasting and almsgiving

We remember how much we and others do in fact rely on God for our needs.

 

Pilgrimage is a spirit–driven journey,

An opportunity to fully turn our trust to God,

And it is also a time for the renewal, rediscovery, and reorganization of the self.

 

Again Cousineau writes:

“Pilgrimage is often regarded as the universal quest for the self.”

 

While on my own wanderings in Scotland and eventually in England,

I didn’t realize at first,

But what I was searching for the whole time was my true self,

The self with the image and likeness of God.

As I became more aware of the theology of Celtic Christianity,

I realized that it was a reflection of my own personal theology,

An understanding of one’s self and the whole created order as inherently good

And as reflecting the beauty of the Divine.

Christ is within every mountain,

Every valley,

Ever seed,

And every star,

Every friend,

Every stranger,

And even within my very self.

And in you.

And you.

And you.

 

This sense of self-realization is also present in Mark’s Gospel.

Today we heard a coming of age narrative.

Jesus’ identity was declared to him by God’s voice from heaven,

“You are my Son, the Beloved.”

And he immediately goes out on pilgrimage

And wrestles with this Divine identity in the wilderness.

And as Jesus returns to his home,

As he returns to Galilee in Judea,

Who Jesus actually is,

Fully divine and fully human,

Is realized in his public mission and ministry that commences

As soon as he strides out of the desert.

 

And in these forty days of Lent,

We too begin to recognize

That through Jesus Christ,

Through God incarnate,

We too have been given a name,

An identity,

And a worth as human beings.

At the end of this wandering in the wilderness,

At the end of this season of Lent,

At the end of these forty days

We will walk in the footsteps of Christ to Calvary,

And approach the cross on Good Friday.

And as we stand at the foot of that cross,

Besides Mary the mother of God,

Mary Magdalene,

And John, the beloved disciple,

We will finally realize that through this sacrifice,

We have been claimed by Christ as the beloved children of God.

This is where our Lenten journey leads,

To the foot of the cross,

And the realization that we ourselves are children of God.

 

But how do we make the most out of this pilgrimage?

How do we reorient ourselves

So that Lent is not just another season and color on the every spinning liturgical calendar?

 

According to the eastern philosopher Confuscious,

There are five excellent practices of pilgrimage:

 

First,

Practice the arts of attention and listening.

Sit in stillness sometimes.

Observe the falling snow,

The shape of the crystals on your window pane—

And the other twelve feet of snow outside your door.

Listen to your breath.

Hear the inhale and exhale given to us by the very Spirit of God

That moved over the waters of Creation.

 

Second,

Practice renewing yourself every day.

Take time for self care.

To do what gives you energy—

Meditation, singing, dancing, enjoying a good book,

Or curling up by the fire in the arms of your beloved.

 

Third,

Practice meandering toward the center of every place.

When I moved to New England I finally learned the art of power walking.

Yet as I have adopted the practice of pilgrimage,

I have had to relearn that southern art of moseying meandering,

Of not taking the quickest and most direct route to where we are going.

There is a reason why Lent is forty days,

And not just the seven days of Holy Week.

 

Fourth,

Practice the ritual of reading sacred texts.

Read your favorite psalm every day.

Or read the entirety of the Gospel of Mark.

Or perhaps your sacred is Emerson, Muir or Thoreau.

Or throw a bit of Julian of Norwich in there as well.

Let the words wash over you,

Echoing the voice of God.

 

And fifth,

Practice gratitude and praise–singing.

Journal at the end of each day those things you are thankful for.

Your family,

Your friends,

Perhaps Taylor Swift’s song “Shake it Off”

That you dance to while getting ready in the morning.

Thank God for the little things.

So that when Easter does finally come,

The long awaited shouting of Alleluia

Will be filled with all of our gratitude and praise.

Friends,

I pray that this Lenten season

Will be your pilgrimage,

That liminal space

Where earth and heaven meet.

 

AMEN.

God is in the Wilderness

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (and my first Sunday as a deacon!)

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.”

In the name of the Triune God: Lover, Beloved, Love. AMEN.

When I sat down and began to process the Scripture readings for today,
I laughed at the synchronicity of it all.
For on this day three years ago,
I was actually standing before you,
Preaching on this Gospel passage from Mark.
And I must admit two and a half years of seminary
Have done my preaching some good.

But I think what struck me most of all,
Was how different the Scripture spoke to me now,
How the words rolled off my tongue at a different pace,
How phrases jumped off the page anew,
As if I was hearing the Word of God for the first time.

Whereas in previous readings of this Scripture,
I had been occupied with baptism,
With the Holy Spirit,
With the Forgiveness of sins;
This time around,
This old reading but at the same time completely new reading of the Gospel,
This time around there was one word that jumped off the page:
WILDERNESS.

What do you think of
When you hear the word wilderness?

In the past I would have assumed wilderness meant desert.
John the Baptist was in a really hot, really dry, really sandy and dirty desert,
With a bunch of locusts jumping around
And some wild honey magically hanging off trees.
In my mind it is a similar desert,
To the wilderness in which the Israelites wandered for forty years.
Or perhaps the same desert that Jesus is driven into
Only four verses later in Mark’s Gospel,
Where we hear Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.

Yet when I read this Scripture again,
Wilderness looked quite different in my mind’s eye.
This time wilderness was the isle of Iona off the rugged coast of Scotland.
It was the moment when I sat on the cold stone steps
Outside of a medieval monastery,
Nothing but pitch black blanketed me.
And the wind howled uncontrollably
Completely surrounding me in its eerie yet mystical song.
Yet it was in that moment enwrapped in God’s creation,
That I realized
God is in the wilderness.

A second time I contemplated this Gospel passage,
And wilderness looked quite different again.
This time wilderness was Mount Hesperus,
The Navajo holy mountain of the North
Nestled amongst the San Juan mountains of Colorado.
It was the moment when I followed my beloved
Up the rocky path towards Shark’s tooth pass,
(Yes, it was as ominous as it sounds)
Through an overgrown forest,
Giant wildflowers shooting up almost to my chin.
And the further we climbed,
The air in my lungs grew tighter as we pushed passed 12,000 feet.
Yet it was in that moment that I realized,
The air I breathe every day,
Is truly the Spirit of God bringing forth life.
God is in the wilderness.

A third time I contemplated this passage from Mark,
And again wilderness looked quite different than before.
This time wilderness was my dorm room in Wilder Hall at Mount Holyoke.
It was the moment when I was crying uncontrollably on my bed,
Mascara stained tears running down my face,
Feeling utterly alone
As I faced my demons and struggled with my depression.
Yet it was in that moment that I looked up above my bed,
And read the hand written words of Psalm 139:
“O Lord you have searched me out and known me.”
“Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?”
God is in the wilderness.

And throughout our salvation narrative,
Throughout the canon of scared Scripture,
We find God is in the wilderness.

Looking at one of the best known Bible stories,
The book of Exodus,
We find the Israelites wandering in the desert
For forty years
As they await their entrance into the Promised Land.
Yet they are not alone in this desolate place,
God is there,
Not only ready to impart God’s holy law in the Ten Commandments,
But also there ready to feed the children of Israel.
During the pitch black cover of night,
As they sleep,
The desert wind gently ruffling through their tents,
God sends down manna —
The bread of heaven to feed these wandering people.
God is there,
Watching over them
From Mount Sinai.
God is on that rugged mountaintop.

And looking at our Old Testament reading today,
Isaiah 40,
We find the people of Israel again,
Far away from their homeland,
Entrapped in lives of captivity,
Under the rule of Babylon,
For generations the Israelites have been suffocated by this foreign empire,
Unable to breathe,
Unable to be who God was calling them to be.
Yet those same writers who are far from the Holy Land
Share their hope in the imminent over throw of Babylon
By the Persian ruler Cyrus,
And their future return to the Promised land.
They assure their people
And assure us,
That the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
And the word of our God will stand forever.
God is there to lead his people like a shepherd.
For God is there when they are far, far from home.

And turning to the introduction of Mark,
Our Gospel reading for today,
We see the chosen people of God,
Straining under the oppression of the Roman Empire.
Hopelessness and despair are their daily reality,
Mothers’ tears flow forth,
Streaming down their faces,
As the wailing women of Jerusalem,
Mourn the deaths of their sons on wooden crosses.
Yet it is there in the midst of such injustice and chaos,
That God is closest to humanity,
Through the sending of God’s Son,
The incarnation of Jesus Christ,
Which we celebrate in only a few weeks.
God with us,
Emmanuel is in the wilderness.

This is the beauty of our Christian narrative,
Of the story of salvation,
God is, will be, and always has been with us in the wilderness.

And Emmanuel,
God with us,
Is not only the story of our Judeo–Christian narrative,
Our of our waiting for the future coming of Christ,
But it is the reality of all of our wilderness today.

What is your wilderness?

Perhaps it is feeling completely
And utterly unable to do it all.
American culture has taught us to
Over schedule ourselves,
Overwork ourselves,
To over achieve
And over excel
To the point where we no longer
Take care of our selves.
In some ways we perhaps think we are limit–less.
And then one day it all comes crashing down around us.
We are immobilized,
Feeling shame,
Despair,
Depression,
Because the pressure is far too great on our human souls.
Yet in those lowest of lows,
God is there,
Reminding us of our boundaries,
Reminding us we need time for self–care,
Reminding us that we do indeed have limits,
And in reality,
The Triune God is the only One who is limitless.
God is in this wilderness.

Or Maybe your wilderness
Is actual bewilderment,
Is an overwhelming feeling of anxiousness,
That accompanies so many of the events
Of racial tension in this country today.
Why is this happening?
Where do we go from here?
What can we do?
That feeling of anxiousness,
That tightening of the chest,
That inability to breathe,
Is in reality the opportunity to beckon the Holy Spirit in,
To let God’s breath of justice and peace fill our souls,
The anxiousness that removes the air from our lungs,
Is actually God making room for love to enter in.
So that the words we speak,
The words we exhale with every breathe,
Become words of reconciliation and truth.
God is in this wilderness.

Or perhaps your wilderness
Is sadness and grief
At the loss of a loved one,
Perhaps at the loss of our beloved parishioner and friend,
Tim Lavelle.
Yet in the moments when the tears stream down our faces,
Grieving the absence of our beloved brother,
God intermingles tears of grief with tears of joy,
And Comforts,
O comforts us,
Because we know the promise
That we will see our loved ones again
In the risen life eternal with Christ.
God is in this wilderness.

So in this Advent season,
As we prepare for that imminent coming of Christ,
I ask you:
Where is your wilderness?
Where in the depths of your soul
Are you longing for God to enter in?
Where are you most in need of Emmanuel,
God with us?

God is there,
Waiting for you
In the darkest of nights,
On the highest of mountains,
In the deepest depths of despair.

God is crying out for you,
From the wilderness.

AMEN.

Liberated

 

A moment from my summer as a chaplain in CPE:

 

 

After much debate

They conceded to take Kristy off life support.

She was only twenty-three,

And the cause of her condition:

Unknown.

 

The young woman with the jet black hair,

A husband too young to comprehend the reality of mortality,

And their two beautiful and boisterous boys.

They were always shining

Those sly smiles at the nurses —

As if they knew something

We did not.

 

Those beautiful boys.

Although not physically present on that Thursday afternoon

Had their smiles captured in photos;

Their images strewn across the room

Like a scrapbook of memories.

Kristy clutching one such photo,

Almost ready to paste onto a fresh page.

 

Those pictures made that hospital room

Feel as close to home as humanly possible.

Aided by the attention of the charge nurse -—

A woman of petite built but a powerful heart.

Bach and Mozart meandered through the room

Filling in the silent spaces.

A buffet of food —

Muffins; fruit; juice;

Forever redefining the term:

“comfort food.”

 

 

Family and friends gathered —

Whispering tear-filled goodbyes,

Holding her motionless hands,

Stroking that jet black hair

Upon which sat her ivory wedding veil.

The chaplain and nurses wrapped a red prayer shawl

Around her delicate shoulders.

She looked radiant.

And they were ready.

 

The pastor prayed over Kristy

Layers of laying on of hands

Grasping for a miracle

Whether in this life or the next.

 

And then,

She was free.

Invisible angel wings

Sprouting from behind her.

Ready to carry her off in an instant

Floating further into the hands of God.

She was liberated.

Free of the machine.

Free from being tied to this life.

Free to finally meet her maker.

Free to be.